LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- An ill-considered tweet and ham-handed bit of Photoshopping illustrate one reason Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell faces the political fight of his life.
Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee—a campaign arm of the GOP—tweeted a photo superimposing the head of McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, atop the body of “Obama Girl,” the curvaceous model who shimmied her affection for then-candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.
This is what’s known as a gift.
Democrat Grimes is waging a tooth-and-nail fight against Republican McConnell in Kentucky in what promises to be a marquee contest of the 2014 midterm elections. Polls suggest the race is exceedingly close. (Complicating things, McConnell also faces a tea party challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, in the May GOP primary.)
McConnell is running with the burden of the GOP’s badly soiled brand and a day job as co-ringleader of an institution, the United States Congress, that voters hold in appallingly low regard. Grimes is running, or trying to, as a “Kentucky Democrat,” as opposed to the national variety that has been firmly and repeatedly rejected in federal elections in places like the Bluegrass State. (Kentucky is unusual for a Southern state in that Democrats still enjoy a majority edge in registration and hold all but one of seven statewide offices. Grimes is secretary of state.)
That's where First Lady Michelle Obama comes in.
At a New York fundraiser for the Democrat’s Senate campaign committee, Obama spoke of the close votes to pass her husband’s sweeping healthcare overhaul and defeat gun control legislation. That is why “it is critical,” she said, “that we elect Michelle Nunn, Alison Grimes, Natalie Tennant.” Nunn is the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia and Tennant is the party's Senate hopeful in West Virginia.
Grimes has sought to distance herself from national Democrats on the gun issue—touting her membership in the National Rifle Assn. and going so far as to invite McConnell to “come shoot with me at the range any day.” She has not run from Obamacare, adopting a mend-it-don’t-end-it stance. But she hasn’t exactly shouted her support from Kentucky’s rooftops, either.
Republicans were beside themselves with delight. Here was a chance not just to highlight Grimes’ prodigious out-of-state fundraising but tie her even closer to the widely disliked Obama. A two-fer, as it were.
Then came Obama girl-cum-Grimes.
The Democrat’s campaign mustered all the outrage that can be quickly crammed into a press release, condemning the “sexual” and “sexualized attack” on the aggrieved candidate. The Republican Senate committee swiftly apologized, removed the tweet from its feed and blamed a lowly, intemperate staffer.
And suddenly the issue was no longer Grimes’ chumminess with Michelle Obama, or that crucial vote for Obamacare and gun control, but a juvenile prank-turned-assault on the dignity of women.
Score one for the Democrats.
Grimes is 35. McConnell is 71. The visual contrast is striking. The political dynamic is tricky. Even in this enlightened age, woe to the male candidate who seems condescending toward his female opponent or, worse, bullying. (Case history: then-New York Rep. Rick Lazio, who has entered political lore for his brash and self-defeating debate performance against Hillary Rodham Clinton in their 2000 U.S. Senate race.)
McConnell, a five-term incumbent, has a history of waging rough, negative campaigns. “He’s very skilled at taking a pebble and turning it into a boulder,” said Al Cross, the dean of Kentucky’s political reporters. McConnell is hardly shrinking from the fight against Grimes. But as the Obama Girl episode demonstrates, McConnell and his fellow Republicans will have to step carefully; it’s one thing to take after another jowly male septuagenarian and another to beat up an opponent who could be McConnell’s daughter.
Something else: Democrats were quick to spread word of the Obama Girl flap nationwide, with the gleeful aid of several sympathetic media outlets. It’s not just McConnell vs. Grimes, or even McConnell vs. Grimes and Bevin. There is no Republican whom Democrats would rather defeat in 2014 and the party is mustering every resource, in Kentucky and every corner of the country, to try to make it happen.
Twitter: @markzbarabakCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times