She’s young, bold and grew up steeped in politics, but to many Kentucky voters she’s still just a name without much of a slate. Running against GOP Leader Mitch McConnell will change that.
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It wasn’t long after she racked up the highest percentage of any statewide Kentucky Democrat in the 2011 Secretary of State race that Alison Lundergan Grimes was being mentioned as a contender for higher office.
Attorney general looked promising; perhaps maybe even governor in 2015. But sometimes the best laid long-term plans are disrupted by the volatile high-pressure politics of the moment.
Democrats desperately needed a bold candidate to contest the most powerful, well-funded Republican in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, next year. Given the Minority Leader’s reputation for bare-knuckled campaigns, his massive war chest and the state’s GOP tilt on the federal level, there weren’t a raft of options.
Grimes, just 34-years-old, attractive, personable and a proven vote-getter, offered a bright generational and demographic contrast with the 71-year-old McConnell, whose general demeanour is dour and characterless.
But there was another crucial factor at play to get Grimes to take the plunge into the precarious underdog role—her father’s political prowess in the state and his longtime ties to Bill Clinton.
Jerry Lundergan, a former state party chairman and state lawmaker who now runs a lucrative catering business, is a close friend of the former president. And Kentucky political observers say that relationship—and Clinton’s private pledge of support and resources—was pivotal to his daughter’s ultimate decision.
“He’s pretty protective of her and I don’t think he’d get her involved in something she’d be in over her head on,” said one longtime Bluegrass State journalist who asked for anonymity to speak without restraints.
But while Kentucky politicos are widely familiar with the father, his daughter—who used her maiden name Lundergan prominently in her first and only prior political campaign—is largely a blank slate.
“In Democratic circles, there are factions that really like her father and some that don’t. But she’s relatively unknown by folks,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell.
One trait she doesn’t lack is temerity.
After spending seven years at a Lexington law firm, Grimes announced in 2010 she would challenge appointed Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Walker, who was selected by the governor of her own party to fill the position after the resignation of incumbent Republican Trey Grayson.
But despite holding the office, Walker was no match for Grimes’ political machine. Grimes trounced her by 10 points.
“I think probably the biggest asset that she had is that tremendous grassroots support that her father built and she built upon,” Walker recalled in an interview.
In general, Grimes’ campaign was largely based on a single issue: Opposition to requiring a photo ID to vote. She placed her two grandmothers in a highly effective ad where they promoted her ideas to ease the business licensing process. “What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes,” said one. “Oh, such a long name,” quipped the other.
The result: She more than doubled her margin against Republican Bill Johnson—thumping him by 22 points.
Under the harsh gleam of a nationally tracked Senate race, Grimes will be pelted with tough questions on immigration, energy policy and thorny cultural questions like abortion and gay marriage—issues she was clearly not prepared to address during her shaky July 1 announcement.
“She’s clearly untested,” said Piper.
If she she doesn’t have a long policy record to her name now, she will by the end of the next 16 months. And in doing so, she’ll form her own nationally recognizable identity that separates her from her father.
History says she’ll fall short in the tantamount task of taking on the party’s Senate leader in a midterm election.
But her youth and inexperience shouldn’t be seen as an automatic detriment against the staid McConnell.
Just ask her former opponents.
“You cannot discount Alison’s ability to campaign. She’s quick on her feet, she’s intelligent and I think she’s a quick study,” said Walker. “I believe she’s got the capability to win.”
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