HAZARD, Ky. — Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is trying to tag his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes as “Barack Obama’s Kentucky candidate,” but Grimes clearly believes she’s found the antidote to that — being “Bill Clinton’s Kentucky candidate.”
And she’s pushing it with all her might.
"I'm not an empty dress! I'm not a cheerleader! I'm not a rubber stamp! But one label I will proudly wear is that of a Clinton Democrat," Grimes declared to more than 450 donors at a fundraiser in Lexington, and then again to a rally here in Hazard at the Hal Rogers Center, where so many people tried to see her and the former president that even volunteers and holders of “VIP tickets” were turned away at the door.
The Senate race in the Bluegrass State is among one of the most closely watched of the midterm cycle, and not just because the outcome is widely anticipated to be close. The contest also holds tremendous symbolism for both parties. A vote against McConnell is a vote against Republican obstructionism in Washington and to oust the most powerful GOP lawmaker in the Senate. A vote for McConnell — whose favorability in Kentucky is hovering around 36 percent — is a vote against Democrats keeping the Senate majority and against President Obama, whose favorability among voters here is even lower than McConnell’s.
Knowing that, Grimes has picked a stand-in president for Obama. In Clinton, she hasn’t just found a family friend (her dad was an early political ally in Clinton’s first run for the White House), she’s also found one of the most successful modern Southern Democratic politicians and a jumping-off point to indulge in late-1990s Democratic nostalgia.
In 1999, it might have been difficult to imagine that a 35-year-old rising political star in Kentucky would hitch her wagon to Clinton in her bid to become the first female U.S. senator from the state. But Clinton has done plenty of brand rebuilding since leaving office, and proved an adept messenger for Obama in his 2012 re-election, helping forge connections to middle class and Southern voters even when the president couldn’t.
Clinton himself relied on Clinton nostalgia, especially in Hazard. He talked about how he liked Kentucky because it voted for him twice and, during the 2008 primary, for his wife, Hillary. He waxed poetic on an event he did in Hazard 15 years ago to promote his New Markets Tax Credit Program, which was designed to spur growth in economically depressed areas. He then lamented, in one of his many jabs at McConnell and Republicans in Congress, that Washington lawmakers had failed to pass legislation to re-up the program.
But perhaps Clinton’s most significant contribution to Bill Clinton Day for Alison Grimes was a talking point he launched to defend her against the attacks of McConnell, who sent out a press release before the Lexington lunch with the subject line “Anti-Coal Bill Clinton Campaigns For Barack Obama’s Kentucky Candidate.”
“He kept acting like she was a clone of the White House. The first thing I thought was, that man thinks that Kentucky has stopped teaching arithmetic,” Clinton told donors in Lexington, before repeating the identical thought in Hazard. “Because the White House changes every four years and it’ll change in two years and this is a six-year job. He’s actually hoping that everybody will check their brain at the door and forget you’re hiring somebody to do something for the next six years that he has not done for the last 30.“
In Lexington, in an ornately decorated room at the Carrick House, donors gave a minimum of $200 to get in the door. Grimes staffers said extra tables, and extra chairs to the existing tables, were added in order to accommodate demand for the event. The campaign’s preliminary estimate of the overall amount raised was between $250,000 and $275,000. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway, who’s running to replace him, also spoke.
The Hazard event, however, did not go off without its hitches. When Yahoo News arrived near the event space, supporters were walking in the opposite direction from the venue and flagged us down to tell us they had driven for hours, and waited for 45 minutes, only to get turned away at the door.
Dodie Murphy, a Grimes campaign volunteer who drove two hours from Madison County with two friends, was disappointed she could not get in and felt, at least temporarily, less inclined to help.
“I’m sending a text right now to the paid staff person who is my supervisor. I was going to start training people for the phone banks tomorrow night and I’m really discouraged,” Murphy said. “I will vote for her, I might not devote as much time because I’m really bummed. When being bummed passes, I’ll probably do what I signed up to do because I keep commitments.”
Others who were walking away were holding free VIP tickets and said that several Democratic officials and judges were still waiting outside of the at-capacity auditorium, hoping to get in. They declined to be named because they do business in Hazard and did not want to be known in the community as partisans. Another woman holding a VIP ticket was yelling into her phone, “This is ridiculous. I will vote Republican in the fall because of this!” When approached by Yahoo News she declined to give her name.
Those who did make it inside the forum at the Hal Rogers Center were as energized as those denied entry were disappointed, yelling out “Tell it, sister!” and “Amen!” as Grimes railed on McConnell.
One woman who was particularly animated during the speech was Meg Judd, a 54-year-old fourth-grade math teacher from Williamsburg.
“I love her! She’s positive on women. She’s just so knowledgeable, she’s so a breath of fresh air,” Judd said. “You know, I’m a Republican and Mitch is just stale. He doesn’t get it in anymore.”
“So you didn’t vote for Bill Clinton?” Yahoo News asked, over Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which was blasting from the stage.
“At the time, I did vote for Bill Clinton because I was a Democrat and then switched to Republican,” Judd conceded with a small laugh.
Grimes is positioning herself as a breath of fresh air. But on Wednesday, that air also seemed to be recycled. From 1996.