OWENSBORO, Ky.– “How’d she do?”
That’s the question I was asked by Charlotte Lundergan, the mother of Alison Lundergan Grimes, after Grimes finished her address to the crowd at Saturday’s Fancy Farm picnic.
But I’ll come back to that. First, let me set the scene a little better before I dive into how I answered the question.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect as my wife, Beverly, and I rolled into the “parking lot” at the 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday. I had never been to the picnic before, although I had been to Fancy Farm once to produce a report on its historical origins when I was in college.
Of course, I hardly ever go anywhere that something interesting doesn’t happen, and my day at the picnic was no exception. I certainly didn’t expect that I would meet Grimes’ mother by happenstance or that she would ask my opinion of her daughter’s speech.
I have to admit, not knowing what to expect at the picnic and just wanting to slip in quietly to observe put me at a bit of disadvantage in several ways. I didn’t have a reserved spot in the media section at the front of the metal tent where the speakers would take the stage. No one knew who I was and the only indication I might be a reporter was the camera and notepad I carried. The advantage I was striving for was being able to get a report on the crowd rather than just rehash what the speakers were saying. Everyone else had that aspect covered pretty well, so I knew I’d have to have a unique perspective on it if I was going to have an article that stood apart.
Beverly and I scouted around the picnic grounds for about 30 minutes before heading into what was a relatively secluded area of the bleachers as the sky opened with heavy rain. As the rain passed and the sun began to shine, the spot we’d chosen seemed perfect for snapping pictures and getting a better feel for the attitude of the crowd, as opposed to trying to squeeze into the front where a number of video cameras were set up, blocking not only maneuverability but also visibility.
What I didn’t think about happening was a large group of Grimes supporters filling up the bleachers all around us as it got closer to time for the speakers to take the stage. So, before it filled up too much, I wandered out toward Grimes’ bus to see if there might be a chance to conduct an interview. She was the only candidate I hadn’t met, so it seemed to be the best opportunity to do so. (Plus, I wanted to learn more about the debate over Grimes’ people saying their shirts were “made in America” as they quipped at McConnell’s people about where their clothes and flags were made.)
Instead of finding Grimes or her campaign people, I wandered past the stage and spotted State Senator Dorsey Ridley, a Democrat from Henderson, sitting there. I’ve known Sen. Ridley for nearly 10 years and have a great deal of respect for him, so I naturally walked over to greet him. It wasn’t long before we were talking about the U.S. Senate race and the comments a political researcher made earlier this week about the odds of Grimes beating incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell. At the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Al Cross said Grimes has a “1 in 4 chance” of winning.
“I’d rather be in her sneakers than his,” Ridley said when I asked him what he thought Grimes’ chances of winning are.
Ridley said the things Grimes has going for her in the campaign – particularly her ability to energize voters, especially young ones – is a contrast to the challenges McConnell will have to do the same thing. He made the point that after nearly three decades, McConnell’s track record doesn’t really include much evidence of adaptability, and that without that it will be tough for his campaign to carry the same level of energy.
Watching the crowd in the time leading up to the political presentations, my impression was that Ridley is probably right. Even for a political rally known for its polarized rhetorical undertones, the Grimes camp just seemed angry, specifically with Sen. McConnell. Some very pointed comments about McConnell were made, and I can’t remember ever seeing the tone turning so negative at a political rally.
I can’t stress the point enough. The anger was directed solely at McConnell. Chants of everything from “Ditch Mitch” to “You might outspend us but you won’t outwork us” were leveled over and over again by the crowd of Grimes supporters surrounding me and Beverly. One man in the group hurled personal insults at the McConnell people on the other side of the room as he called on them to say where the shirts they were wearing were made and asked if they knew the meaning of the word “go” when they started chanting “Go Mitch go.”
By contrast, the McConnell camp at first seemed less engaged in the back-and-forth banter and was softer in tone than their Grimes’ counterparts. Their chants were more positive and upbeat in nature, with the closest they ever came to the Grimes’ camp’s tone being a chant telling Grimes to “go home.”
Even among the candidates, it’s rare to see such negativity so early in a campaign. In the days leading up to this weekend’s Fancy Farm, McConnell and Grimes had already both gone on the offensive with statements and ads meant to undermine each other’s credibility as a candidate. McConnell depicted Grimes as someone who would strengthen Obama’s vision for Kentucky rather than Kentuckians vision for Kentucky, to paraphrase his speech from Saturday. Grimes told the audience that as long as McConnell is in the senate, Washington will be known as “Dysfunctional Capital.”
The other thing I noticed, barely anyone paid Matt Bevin – McConnell’s challenger in the primary – any attention at all, and definitely not in a way that indicated they were taking him seriously as a candidate. Even the other candidates gave him a minimum amount of acknowledgement. Grimes, McConnell, even Congressman Ed Whitfield all but ignored him in their respective speeches, instead focusing on a McConnell-Grimes campaign fight. To drive the point home, McConnell left the stage before Bevin’s turn to speak came.
Getting back to the unexpected moment of my visit to the picnic, Grimes’ mother walked right up to my corner of the crowd and before I realized who she was, I asked her if she wanted to sit down. I quickly moved over to make room and once she was seated, I introduced myself as a reporter with SurfKY.
I scribbled notes as her daughter spoke, made a mental note of the things she said that I agreed (and didn’t agree) with for future reference, and put the pad away. Her mom stood, gave her daughter two thumbs up, and then asked me that unexpected question I mentioned at the start of this column.
I told her Grimes did well, and I meant that. For what the speech was meant to be – a polarizing, political address meant to fire up Democrats (who were already on her side) against McConnell – she hit the right buttons.
But so did McConnell when he spoke to the Republicans in attendance for him.
The only person to do anything unconventional was Bevin, who called on Republicans to help him replace McConnell as the candidate who would face Grimes next fall.
So yes, I think Grimes did well in her first appearance on the same stage with her opponents, but I think she has a lot of work ahead of her. I agree with Al Cross’ assessment at the Chamber breakfast that there are quite a few Democrats who have become disgruntled with the president’s policies because they:
• understand the economic damage those policies on subjects like coal will have in Kentucky;
• are skeptical about the phrase “Affordable Health Care” as the law continues to be changed in a way that maintains the status quo in the parts that people actually need changed for healthcare to be more affordable and accessible while progressing on track in the areas that are more likely to make things more financially challenging for individuals; and
• don’t believe in arbitrarily raising the minimum wage as a method of fighting inflation, because it hasn’t worked before.
Unless Grimes can separate herself from the message that she will be an “Obama lackey,” offering herself as nothing other than just a different choice from a powerful career politician in a leadership position whose proudest victory in recent days was for people who want to fish along a dam won’t be enough to inspire voters disillusioned or frustrated with McConnell to pick her instead. She has to offer something more, something that makes it clear she will represent Kentucky and not just the interests of the liberal elite in Washington when she gets there. More importantly, she has to be specific about how she’ll do that. No one used the phrase “coal severance money” during the picnic, but ask any state or local politician how important that phrase is and see what they say.
I’m not sure Grimes can offer such a statement or present specifics like that, not if she wants to continue to count on the campaign funding she is going to need from the national Democratic campaign. It’s a tough spot to be in. If Matt Bevin can’t rally people around the disillusionment and frustration with McConnell, how much more difficult will it be for a Democrat in a party whose national platform doesn’t line up too well with the more central Democrat ideals in Kentucky?
Frankly, I’m not as confident as Ridley about whose “sneakers” I’d rather be wearing.
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