In a race that could come down to the women’s vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time insulting women in the person of Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes in his victory speech Tuesday night. "My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her in this race," he declared. Continuing the theme of Grimes as the pawn of powerful men, he pointed to her father’s long career in state Democratic politics, belittling her again: “She’s been practicing politics since she learned to talk.” In other words, “Meet Alison Lundergan Grimes, ladies and gentleman, my toddler opponent!”
Grimes, then, wasted no time shooting back when she took the stage: "I am not an empty dress. I am not a rubber stamp. I am not a cheerleader," she declared, all designations actually bestowed on her by McConnell or his surrogates. With her confidence and her feistiness rising as she went on, Grimes punctuated her speech with appeals to “proud Kentucky women.”
We already knew that McConnell-Grimes was likely to be the marquee 2014 race: Could an upstart Democrat, and a woman to boot, knock off the Senate GOP leader, particularly in a year when McConnell’s party might actually gain back the Senate? But Tuesday night, the race became even more interesting, as a window into their respective parties’ future. It’s good news for Democrats, not so good for Republicans, and great news for women.
For anyone who lived through the Democrats’ resurgence in 2006, Tuesday night’s imagery was remarkable. Only eight years ago, many Democrats seemed to believe that the party's future lay in recruiting red state manly men, strong on gun rights and weak on women’s rights. Rahm Emanuel's deputy at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even bragged about them as the "Macho Dems."
Feminists had to suck it up when party leaders backed antiabortion politicians like North Carolina Rep. Heath Schuler, Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, or guys like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, infamous for his opposition to women in the military. For the record, only Casey remains in Congress, while another manly man who won the 2006 cycle, Montana’s Jon Tester, won reelection in 2012 after racking up a strong pro-choice record and with the energetic backing of Planned Parenthood, which he publicly welcomed.)
Eight years later, the party’s best hope for keeping the Senate may be Grimes and Georgia’s Michelle Nunn, who also won a barely contested Democratic primary Tuesday night. Now, for many progressives Grimes and Nunn are overly cautious on Obamacare and other issues. Environmentalists no doubt winced at Grimes’ full-throated endorsement of Kentucky’s coal industry and denunciation of the president’s coal policies. Likewise in Louisiana, a third crucial Democratic woman, Sen. Mary Landrieu, is hitting Obama hard for not approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
But none of these red state women – and none of the vulnerable red state men, either, to my knowledge -- are triangulating or tacking to the center by promising to curtail women's rights.
In fact, Grimes made her appeal to women central to her speech Tuesday night. She hit McConnell hard for opposing the Violence Against Women act, the Lilly Ledbetter Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. There was a little nod to male chauvinism in the way she hit McConnell: “If you can’t stand up to protect Kentucky women against violence, you don’t deserve to be a United States senator.” But there was also feminist pride, and a determination to use McConnell’s patronizing attitude against him, when she declared, “As a proud Kentucky woman I will speak for myself -- and no Kentucky woman, Mitch McConnell, will sit on the back bench.”
It was also noteworthy, and refreshing, to see Grimes embrace the labor movement and oppose a right to work initiative that’s on the ballot with her in November. “I believe collective bargaining is a fundamental right for American workers,” she told her victory-party audience. “It is labor that has lifted millions out of poverty, and together we will grow the middle class.” It wasn’t long ago that Blue Dog Democrats were telling us that the party had to compromise the rights of workers, not just women.
We’ll see if it works. But the Kentucky race is shaping up to showcase the future of each party: the post-Tea Party GOP on the one hand (that’s a controversial claim I’ll back up in another piece) and the post-Barack Obama Democrats on the other. The young, female, college-educated Grimes represents a demographic that’s crucial to her party’s future, and one that Democrats took for granted just a few years ago. How she handles the issue of race, in a state that’s 88 percent white and hostile to our first black president, will also be crucial. But for now, Grimes’ national stature is sweet vindication for Democratic women who were told to pipe down while men took over their party.
Update 1:00 p.m.: An earlier version of this post referred specifically to Sen. Chuck Schumer, who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as an architect of the red state "manly men" scheme, and I've come to believe that wasn't fair. Yes, he participated in the recruitment of Webb and Casey, but he also got behind Amy Klobuchar and Claire McCaskill, as well as Ben Cardin, Sheldon Whitehouse and Sherrod Brown, who have strong pro-choice records.