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Politics

Key races may hinge on what voters distrust more: Obama or Congress

Bill Clinton, Alison Lundergan Grimes
Former President Clinton campaigns in Kentucky with Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, who is running for Senate against Mitch McConnell.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes brought in a couple of aging rock stars last week to boost her bid to unseat Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

One was Jon Bauman, better known as Bowzer from the ‘50s-nostalgia band Sha Na Na, who sprinkled in doo-wop as he campaigned with her in central Kentucky. The second was more of a political rock star: Bill Clinton, better known as the former president of the United States, who rallied conservative Democrats in two western Kentucky cities.

But the real star may be the 35-year-old candidate herself. Grimes’ tireless but uphill campaign has confounded expectations that the Bluegrass State’s strong dislike of President Obama would carry McConnell to his goal of being the next Senate majority leader.

After she delivered a fiery rebuke of McConnell’s five terms in Washington at a recent rally in Owensboro — leading the crowd in a preacher-like chant of “30 years is long enough!” — even Clinton seemed taken aback by her passion. “I’ll tell you one thing,” said Clinton, who has known Grimes since she was 14 years old, “I’m glad I never had to run against her.”

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In a year in which Obama’s unpopularity has been used by Republicans across the country to bludgeon Democratic senators, Kentucky — which Obama lost in 2012 by 23 percentage points — seems like the last place the party would have a chance to pick off a Republican incumbent, let alone the party’s Senate leader. Yet a recent poll showed the race is within the margin of error.

Ultimately Kentucky’s Senate contest, and many others across the country, may come down to what voters distrust more: the Obama administration or longtime congressional incumbents like McConnell. Just 30% of voters here had a favorable opinion of the president in the most recent Bluegrass Poll, compared with 38% for McConnell and 40% for Grimes.

That tension between disappointment in Obama and anger at a gridlocked Congress is a theme in several close races, complicating Republican efforts to use the president’s flagging popularity to seize control of the Senate in November. And it has created an opening for newcomers like Grimes.

National Democrats, who this month let their television ad buys for Grimes lapse, have jumped back in the race with another six-figure purchase of airtime. Her campaign, meanwhile, is touting news reports that McConnell paid supporters to travel to stops on a recent eastern Kentucky bus tour as an indication that his campaign lacked grass-roots enthusiasm. McConnell’s staffers countered that the hires were solely to handle logistics, not to pad audiences.

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But while Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, has earned praise for running a disciplined campaign, her determination to stay on message turned into a liability this month. She repeatedly refused to say whether she voted for Obama for president, despite the fact that she attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention and served on a national party administrative committee.

The issue came up in her only televised debate against McConnell. “Secretary Grimes’ whole campaign has been designed to deceive people into thinking she’s something she isn’t,” McConnell said.

But despite calls for her to answer the question, Grimes insisted that revealing her vote would compromise the principle of a secret ballot. The moment overshadowed an otherwise strong performance. Her unfavorable rating climbed from 38% to 43% in just over two weeks, according to the Bluegrass Poll.

McConnell’s campaign cites the episode as evidence that Grimes does not have what it takes to win the race. They acknowledge she has proven to be a formidable opponent and that her performance could someday carry her to higher office. But they say there is a fine line between being disciplined and appearing inauthentic, a difference they say Kentucky voters are starting to see.

From the campaign’s earliest stages, Grimes, a lawyer first elected to public office in 2011, has cast McConnell as out of touch and more focused on his own climb up the political ladder. The airwaves are crowded with advertisements from both well-financed campaigns, but Grimes is also taking her argument on the road nearly nonstop.

“We are running circles around Sen. McConnell,” Grimes said in an interview aboard her campaign bus after speaking to autoworkers in Louisville. “The momentum and energy is there. That’s what Mitch McConnell can’t buy. That’s what he has lost sight of.”

Grimes’ campaign says she visited a third of the state’s 120 counties in the last month alone, part of an effort to outrun the 72-year-old incumbent and mine votes even in areas that are Republican strongholds.

“We’ve already beaten the odds by being here today,” she said at a restaurant in Elizabethtown. “We will beat the odds when we tell Washington we are ready to get Washington working for Kentucky by getting rid of 30 years of gridlock, obstruction and partisanship.”

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The meet-and-greet there was one of five events she held in one day — what her campaign characterized as a “half-day.” The stops were part of what staffers call the “Grannies for Grimes” tour, focusing on senior issues like Medicare and Social Security. At each stop she introduced her grandmother and her mother, also now a grandmother. “My sisters have helped in that area,” joked Grimes, who is married with no children. “I haven’t been home to see my husband in quite some time.”

What has so impressed some Democrats about Grimes is that she is making just her second run for political office. If she wins in November, Grimes would become the youngest person elected to the Senate in 34 years and Kentucky’s first female senator.

“I’ve never seen anyone like her,” said Crit Luallen, a former two-term state auditor. “I think she’s always had this gift. But [not] until she actually stepped into this race did she fully reach her potential.”

Politics was always in the family. Grimes’ colorful but controversial father, Jerry Lundergan, owns a catering and events business as well as a restaurant named Hugh Jass Burgers that features suggestively named menu items. He has been active in Kentucky state politics for decades, serving in the Legislature and as state party chairman. In that role, the family forged a bond with the Clintons that goes back decades. Both Bill and Hillary have campaigned with her in the state and may return in the final stretch.

Grimes has repeatedly called herself a Clinton Democrat. But Grimes’ efforts to distance herself from Obama have led some to question whether she risks losing crucial support from the party’s base, particularly African American voters in cities like Louisville.

Jerry Woolridge, an African American retiree who attended a Grimes rally wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of himself with Obama in 2004, said he understood Grimes’ reluctance to be connected to the unpopular president.

“He hasn’t been to Kentucky,” said Woolridge, whose wife is a city councilor. “That’s a no-no. But he’s done great things for Kentucky.” In Grimes, Woolridge sees a similar dynamism to Obama’s, one that McConnell hasn’t faced before.

“Alison,” he said, “she’s got something that the rest of them don’t have.”

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli


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