By: John Nichols
The luckiest break Democrats have had in the 2014 election cycle—a political twist so significant that it could allow the party to maintain control of the United States Senate—resulted from a strikingly stupid political scheme.
For several months in early 2013, Democrats in Washington entertained the notion of running movie star Ashley Judd against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the dark prince of American politics who promises that if Republicans win control of the Senate this fall he will end debates about increasing the minimum wage, regulating banks, protecting the environment, and addressing the corrupting influence of corporate cash on American elections and governance. Judd’s a fine actress, with an impressive résumé of humanitarian and political activism, along with childhood roots in the Bluegrass State. But McConnell and his pals were positively gleeful at the notion of running against a jet-setting celebrity who had spent much of her adult life in the general environs of Hollywood and Nashville.
A funny thing happened, though, on the way to electoral oblivion. Judd decided she didn’t want to take the hits that the haters were preparing on McConnell’s behalf. That left national Democrats with no choice but to get serious about beating the man who has for a quarter century curried the favor of Wall Street as part of a long-term plan to become Senate Majority Leader.
What they realized, grudgingly, was that the smart strategy for beating McConnell was never going to run through the Hollywood hills. It runs through Stanton, the city of 2,733 that serves as the seat of overwhelmingly rural Powell County in east-central Kentucky, and through hundreds of small cities and towns across a state where rural voters are, when properly motivated, entirely capable of finding the Democratic line on the ballot. So, Democrats went local, convincing Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes—who actually “gets” that Powell County and rural Kentucky matter, a lot, for Democrats—to be their candidate.
Grimes knows how to speak to Stanton, and communities like it—not by veering right on social issues, and not merely by making respectful references to farming and rural development, but by going populist on economics and promising to do battle with “the people on the top in both parties.”
That understanding is what distinguishes Grimes and her candidacy.
She knows that she can win the big city of Louisville, which already elects one of the most progressive members of the U.S. House, Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth, and that gave President Obama a solid win in 2012.
But Grimes also knows that, to upend McConnell, she must win the places that didn’t vote for Obama when he lost the state by a 60-38 margin. She understands that voters in rural regions rely on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—as well as unemployment insurance, public education, and post offices. She recognizes that the majority of citizens in small cities, towns, and rural areas tend to be a good deal more interested in having champions on those issues than mouthpieces of partisan or ideological division.
To D.C. insiders, rural Kentucky is off the map for Democrats. Barack Obama won around 35 percent of the vote in Powell County in 2012—roughly the same percentage that he got in rural areas nationally. And no Democratic Presidential candidate has won the majority of the vote in Powell County since Bill Clinton’s 51 percent in 1996.
So why bother? Because, despite some top-of-the-ticket Republican tendencies, Powell County regularly votes for Democrats in local and state races. In fact, there are hundreds of rural counties in supposedly “red” states across the country that, with a little attention and prodding, can and will vote Democratic. Those counties have been, and remain, key to Democratic electoral prospects in lower-turnout “off-year” elections. For instance, in 2006, they played a critical role in restoring Democratic majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. In 2012, Democrats maintained their majority in the Senate by winning seats in heavily rural states such as Montana and North Dakota, and in states such as Indiana and Missouri, where the rural population is higher than the national average. All of those states backed Mitt Romney for President and Democrats for the Senate, with some of the most significant ticket-splitting taking place in rural areas.
That pattern will have to repeat in 2014 if Democrats hope to maintain their shaky grip on the Senate. But, to do that, Democrats must make the connection to small-farm and small-town voters with candidates who appreciate the nuances of rural America.
If Democrats were smart about candidate recruitment, they would have recognized from the start that they needed Grimes—or someone very much like her—to make a race of it with McConnell, a wily career politician who has parlayed special-interest money and crude negative campaigns into his leadership of Senate Republicans.
Grimes is the sort of candidate who can run up the vote in urban counties while prying rural counties back from the Republicans. When she was elected Secretary of State in 2011, in her first statewide race and against serious Republican opposition, Grimes collected more than 70 percent of the vote in Powell County. In fact, she swept rural counties across the state. Grimes did not run to the right in that campaign. She actually opposed the voter ID laws that conservatives say are so popular, calling them “a resurrection of Jim Crow laws, in essence what I equate to being a poll tax.”
What was key was that she made her point in a way that had particular appeal in rural Kentucky, noting that the GOP’s restrictive rules would require her ninety-one-year-old grandmother—who appeared with the candidate in folksy TV ads during the 2011 campaign—“to go get a government-issued ID to vote at the precinct she’s been voting at for the last forty years.”
Grimes has a flair for putting issues in perspective, answering questions about marriage equality by saying, “My husband and I have been married for seven years, and I believe others should have the opportunity to make that same commitment.” On reproductive rights, she says, “I come from a family of five women. I would never pretend to tell one of my sisters what to do with her body, and don’t want the federal government doing that, either.”
Grimes is not a classic lefty, except in McConnell’s attack ads. Though she has attracted plenty of support from unions, as well as Emily’s List and pro-choice groups, the Democrat distances herself from the Obama Administration on energy policy. You will not hear her criticizing coal. But she does criticize the clunkier elements of the Affordable Care Act. Grimes delights in saying, “I am as much a cheerleader for President Obama as Senator McConnell is a Chippendale dancer.”
She has to win over rural Kentucky, just as other Democrats who hope to prevail in Senate contests this year—in states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, and Oregon—must hold their own in rural regions if they hope to prevail. Frankly, Democrats across the country might want to borrow a few pages from the Grimes playbook. Unlike too many national Democrats, she is aggressively pro-union, declaring, “Right to Work is wrong for Kentucky. . . . It’s just another word for union busting, and as your United States Senator I will have none of it.” She’s all in for higher wages, pay equity, and making college more affordable. In speeches, she can sound a bit like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, especially when Grimes is pitching herself as “someone that wants to give the middle class of Kentucky a fighting chance to actually survive.”
But this goes beyond Warren’s “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” politics to something older, more visceral. The Grimes campaign channels the enthusiasms of William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt, while rejecting the medium-cool strategies of today’s D.C. Democrats. She jabs at McConnell with delight, portraying him as a tool of corporate interests who has done well for himself while doing harm to working folks in Kentucky.
“What can happen in thirty years?” asks a Grimes TV ad that began airing in August. “A Senator can become a multimillionaire in public office while voting seventeen times against raising the minimum wage, three times for corporate tax breaks that send Kentucky jobs overseas and twelve times against extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers.”
The McConnell camp is squealing, accusing Grimes of running a campaign that is “nothing short of despicable.” But Elizabeth Warren is impressed.
The Massachusetts Senator swept into Kentucky for a June rally on the University of Louisville campus, where she accused McConnell of deciding “it’s more important to protect the billionaires” than students struggling with loan debt. “Send us Alison Grimes instead of Mitch McConnell, and you . . . fundamentally change the United States Senate.”
The Warren rally got lots of attention from state and national media, which was fine by Grimes.
There was no such attention a few weeks earlier when, on a Tuesday morning in May, the candidate arrived in Stanton to rally local Democrats in the parking lot of the Elkins Insurance office on Main Street. But when the votes are counted in November, it will be Powell County and the rest of rural Kentucky that decide whether to change the world. If Grimes can hold her own in rural regions, Democrats will come away from the 2014 election with more than just a replacement for Mitch McConnell. They will get the message that, when Democrats pay serious attention to rural America, rural America gives Democrats the votes they need to win. u
John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.