TIME 2014 Election

McConnell Ad Flub Is Bad, But Not a Gaffe

McConnell should probably fire his ad maker, but no one doubts he’s an avid Kentucky sports fan

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, running in the tightest reelection campaign of his career in Kentucky, came out with a new web ad Tuesday morning, and it’s the second in a row that has gone viral online for all the wrong reasons.

The ad, entitled “Rebuild,’ was produced by award winning filmmaker Lucas Baiano, who did former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s eye-catching spot in 2011 that ran like a an action movie preview. This video similarly looks like a series of patriotic scenes lifted out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film like Armageddon or Top Gun. There’s even audio of Neil Armstrong’s iconic quote, “One small step for man…”

At the end of the one-minute-twenty-second spot, McConnell’s voice is heard over images of a basketball team winning a game. “And if we win the majority in November I will work every day to change that. This is our time to get it right,” he says. Unfortunately, the first release of the ad didn’t get it right: The images were of Duke’s basketball team, not Kentucky’s. Perhaps Baiano couldn’t tell the difference between the two team uniforms. I certainly couldn’t. It’s something about the thickness of the blue lines on the white uniforms. And it takes a sharp eye to catch it: The scene is up for less than two seconds. The McConnell campaign quickly pulled down the ad and replaced the images with one of the correct team.

But it was too late. The damage was already done. McConnell’s opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, of course, jumped on the flub. “After 30 years in Washington, DC, Mitch McConnell has clearly lost touch with Kentucky,” her campaign said in a statement. “It turns out he has been in Washington so long he does not even know the difference between Kentucky and Duke basketball.”

McConnell is trailing Grimes slightly in most polls.

I’d call the mistake a flub rather than a gaffe, because a gaffe underlines a truth. John Kerry putting Swiss cheese on a Philly cheese steak during the 2004 campaign underlined how effete and out of touch he was with the common man (in Philly, it’s only done right with cheese whiz). Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgetting the third department of the federal government he’d like to cut in the middle of a debate (“Oops.”) confirmed voter suspicions that he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. And former Virginia Sen. George Allen calling a Democrat tracker “Macaca,” a racial epithet, signaled to voters he might just be a southern racist hick.

But unlike former Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, McConnell has been back to Kentucky over the past 29 years. A lot. So much so, Republicans in the state sometimes lament his virtually authoritarian control over the Bluegrass State GOP. Anyone who’s met McConnell or been to his offices, which are filled with Kentucky sports paraphernalia, can tell you the man really is a Kentucky sports fan.

Is it a mistake? Absolutely. An embarrassing one. And it comes on the heels of his last campaign video: two-and-a-half minutes of McConnell creepily smiling into the camera, talking to voters and running meetings—all set to muzak. That footage was presumably posted online so that outside Super PACs supporting McConnell could use it. Instead, The Daily Show, the Tonight Show and thousands of amateur political lampooners used it to mock McConnell in an Internet meme known as #McConnelling. I’m not so sure if the fallout of this is McConnell having to prove his Kentucky basketball bona fides so much as fire his ad making team.

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