TIME 2014 Election

McConnell Opponent is Big on Style, Less So on Detail

Alison Lundergan Grimes
Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, addresses a group of supporters at a fundraiser at the Galt House Hotel, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes has slick campaign events, but avoids getting pinned down on policy

High overhead, huge gauzy white veils drape gracefully, entwined with tea lights that are turned off for this particular event. They center around a chandelier that sits a little askew. Shoved to the side of the room are white twig ornamental sculptures. But on this Wednesday night, the Bruce Convention Center here is not hosting a wedding, but rather a campaign rally for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state who is running for Senate. Some 450 people, including her father, stand as she enters the room, strutting to Katy Perry’s Roar.

“Hello, Hopkinsville,” Grimes calls out to an answering cheer. The crowd is fired up.

Grimes then launches into what could be a summary of the Wikipedia entry on the town. She lauds the local basketball team—thanking folks for skipping the championship game to come hear her speak. She mentions the baseball team, the nearby military bases and the bowling ball factory. She gives a shout out to western Kentucky’s famous political ancestors, including former Gov. Edward Breathitt, who was “faced with same challenge as we do today, the need to create a stronger middle class,” she says.

Grimes, a Democrat, is slightly ahead of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the polls—by just half-a-percentage point, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys. And, her campaign argues, her huge events are evidence of the energy and enthusiasm that surrounds her candidacy, whereas McConnell has stuck to smaller events, like the closed roundtable with a couple dozen veterans he did earlier in the week. “They can hardly get 100 people in a room and we routinely get hundreds, more than a thousand,” says Jonathan Hurst, Grimes’ campaign manager.

Grimes’ events are Clintonesque in their staging and delivery. Not 2008 Hillary Clinton, but vintage Bill, who campaigned for Grimes last month. They are large staged events meant to be theatrical: The evening begins with a prayer from a reverend, the Pledge of Allegiance led by two cub scouts and the national anthem sung by a local pol, who happens to be a college classmate of Grimes’ father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Jerry Lundergan.

Three political speakers—a county attorney, the state treasurer and a former governor—then whip the crowd into a froth of anti-establishment sentiment, particularly slamming McConnell, who has held this seat for 29 years. “Alison Lundergan Grimes is empathetic. She compares herself to you. She compares herself to you because she’s going to Washington to represent us, not herself,” says Todd Hollenbach, Kentucky’s state treasurer. “Mitch McConnell likes to kinda put a sneer on his face, as if he’s teaching us something we don’t already know.”

By the time Grimes emerges, the crowd is primed. She sets a striking contrast to the 72-year-old McConnell: She’s young (35) and energetic and often empathetic, her voice slowing and growing poignant at key moments in her speech. She interweaves her standard stump speech, which local reporters say doesn’t change much, with shout outs to locals. “Zee Enix, who celebrates his 91st birthday tomorrow, is here with us tonight,” she says. She tells coal workers here that McConnell has done little to help them. And she tells those who work on the military bases that McConnell voted to cut their job training programs.

In her prolonged section on the 118,000 manufacturing jobs that Kentucky lost at the height of the downturn, Grimes mentions #McConnelling, the meme that went viral last week thanks to the Daily Show poking fun at a silent two-and-a-half minute video McConnell’s campaign released— most likely to give outside groups, with whom it is legally banned from coordinating, footage for commercials. “For nearly three minutes he said nothing,” she says with a laugh. “It came as a surprise for the nation but for us here, we know how he has done little.”

Grimes promotes her jobs plan, which she calls “lengthy.” But she’s vague on the details. The McConnell campaign notes that he has voted into law at least three pieces of the plan. “Apparently Alison Lundergan Grimes thinks giving staged speeches about current law every six weeks and calling it a jobs plan is what a Senator does,” says Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for McConnell’s campaign.

Local reporters say that while Grimes often takes questions after each such event—she has one every few weeks—she does not submit to lengthy questioning (TIME’s interview was seven-and-a-half minutes). Such limits to access makes it difficult to determine whether’s a there there with Grimes, something that can be hard to divine through stump speeches and 30-second made-for-television quotes. Clearly we don’t know where she stands on a lot of issues. Her answers are generally vague except on topics she choses to talk about, like jobs,” says Joe Gerth, a political reporter covering the campaign for the Louisville Courier-Journal. “On those things she’ll get on some detail, but even then you don’t get anything on the number of jobs created or the costs of the plan. So you get largely rote answers.”

Even in that, Grimes is Clintonesque: The Clinton world is infamous for its tight control of the press, something Bill Clinton overcame with his natural disregard for barriers. But Grimes would be wise to note that both Al Gore and Hilary Clinton’s campaigns were hobbled by their campaign’s attempts to rope them off from the press, and neither were troubled by questions of substance. Eight months out from an election, Grimes is arguably smart to avoid getting pinned down, but the longer she waits, the more opportunity she gives her opponent to define her. Already McConnell’s camp is moving to label her a hollow celebrity, akin to the Katy Perry song she likes so much.

“I really have to wonder where her values are and why she’s doing this. Look who all’s come in and campaigned for her: Bill Clinton was here within the last month,” says Nancy Combow, a longtime McConnell volunteer. “I think we’re going to see major Hollywood movie stars stumping for her and it’s going to be a lot of show. I think we’re going to see a big show from Alison Grimes.”

The strongest candidates are a marriage of style and substance.

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