Mitch McConnell's glass jaw: How Alison Lundergan Grimes can potentially save her campaign

McConnell is close to sealing his reelection in Kentucky. If Grimes wants to win, she'll have to take some risks

Published September 16, 2014 2:32PM (EDT)

Alison Lundergan Grimes, Mitch McConnell               (AP/Stephen Lance Dennee/J. Scott Applewhite)
Alison Lundergan Grimes, Mitch McConnell (AP/Stephen Lance Dennee/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yup, this is what it's come to with the once-promising Alison Lundergan Grimes campaign against Sen. Mitch McConnell: an ad in which the great Democratic hope shoots guns to prove, as she says forthrightly, that "I am not Barack Obama." She adds that she "disagree[s] with him on guns, coal and the EPA.” For kickers she throws in a reference to McConnell's Great Duke Basketball Mishap, and concludes by telling "Mitch" that he doesn't know how to handle a rifle properly.

Sure, she's not attempting to win over a pathetic Northeastern lefty whiner such as myself -- in fact, the ad's message would be much more effective if she was shooting an actual human liberal -- but this is a depressing ad, in support of a depressing strategy that isn't working.

Grimes was supposed to represent the Democrats' best Senate pickup opportunity this year. Sure, there were only two of them to begin with, but the Kentucky race is beginning to slip away from Grimes. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows McConnell with a five percentage point lead, with the most recent figure showing McConnell +8. Many thought that McConnell, in spite of his unpopularity in the state, would be able to build a lead after vanquishing his primary opponent and turning his sizable war chest and unscrupulous but real political talents towards Grimes. That's happened. And it's effectively drowned Grimes in the always-unfavorable fundamentals of the race.

The New York Times' fancy election computer thing now shows McConnell with a 90%+ chance of winning. "That’s partly because candidates usually win with such a clear lead at this stage," the Times' Nate Cohn writes, "but it’s also because the underlying fundamentals point to a McConnell victory." He goes on to explain why Kentucky is such a reliably red state for federal officeseekers to begin with. It didn't used to be. Democrats like Bill Clinton were able to win the state in the not-too-distant past of the 1990s because they still had strong support in eastern Kentucky (coal mining country). They no longer do, and there "aren’t many places in Kentucky where Democrats are making gains to counter their losses."

Grimes is never going to be able to out-coal-and-gun a Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, even if it's a legendary goober like Mitch McConnell. Ads like the above may be effective in helping her stem losses in coal country and culturally conservative regions, but if she wants to win then they've got to be matched with some sort of offensive strategy.

It's a red state, with an unpopular president who favors unpopular environmental regulations there, without a new Democratic population to offset the voters who've been lost to Republicans in the last couple of decades. So what's potentially unique about Kentucky that she could play to her advantage, aside from the fact that her Republican opponent is a nationally recognized sleazeball?

Perhaps the notorious scourge of Obamacare!

Kentucky was one of the few states to roll out the health care reform law over the past year without any hitches. Its insurance exchange, Kynect, is popular in spite of its unfortunate name, and yet Mitch McConnell -- despite his pitiful attempts at hedging -- is running to eliminate it. Al Cross of Kentucky's Courier-Journal writes, "Those facts would seem to invite a Democratic television commercial featuring some of the 521,000 newly covered Kentuckians speaking to the camera and alleging that McConnell wants to take away their health insurance." Even that's too wishy-washy, though, and relies too much on empathy. Americans hate empathy. How about an ad where Grimes just looks into the camera and says "If Mitch McConnell is reelected, YOU will YOUR health insurance plan"? And then she can shoot a gun at something if that's what she wants, whatever.

Grimes has been timid on Obamacare throughout her campaign. As Al Cross explains, she "only deals with the subject when asked about it -- and, like McConnell, she rarely lingers for extended questioning." She and her campaign handlers aren't insane crazy people for having taken this strategy. Even though Kynect is popular, it's still "Obamacare," and rallying directly behind it would open her to attacks about how she and Obama are the best of friends. So, sure, there are risks to "running on Obamacare." It could help her win by one percentage point or blow her loss to like twelve percentage points. But if she continues running the riskless campaign that she's been running, a modest loss seems guaranteed.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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