A once-golden opportunity in the Kentucky Senate race could be slipping away from Democrats.
After more than a dozen consecutive polls have shown nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes lagging behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcCain hopes Americans can be confident GOP-controlled Congress can investigate president GOP Congress unnerved by Trump bumps Top Dem: GOP is terrified of Trump MORE (R), some Kentucky Democrats are warning that Grimes might need a strategy shake-up. Last week, the state’s largest newspaper wondered whether she needed a “campaign reset.”
But the public numbers have some veteran Bluegrass State Democrats worried. Longtime strategist Jimmy Cauley, who ran Gov. Steve Beshear’s (D-Ky.) 2007 race, warned that if Grimes doesn’t shift her strategy soon, it might be too late.
“I genuinely believe, if it’s an hourglass, the sands are running out,” he told The Hill.
Conversations with several Democrats in the state revealed near-universal concern that Grimes has let McConnell and his moneyed allies define the candidate before she could define herself.
“Alison has to give voters — not just party insiders — a reason to like her and vote for her. So far that has not happened. McConnell wins a mud-throwing contest,” said one Democratic strategist in the state granted anonymity to speak freely.
The seat is critical to Democratic hopes of keeping their Senate majority in a year where they are on defense across the country. McConnell once appeared to be the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent, but with recent developments in Kansas, that title now likely belongs to Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsCNN's Acosta: 'The fix is in' on who gets to ask Trump questions GOP senators to Trump: We support 'maintaining and expanding' Gitmo Kansas treasurer wins GOP nomination to fill House seat MORE (R-Kan.).
Veteran political reporter and University of Kentucky professor Al Cross said, with respect to the polls, “The proof’s in the pudding; they’ve been outmaneuvered.”
Kentuckians have long seen McConnell negatively, Cross noted, but voters haven’t yet figured out what to think about Grimes. The polling suggests they’re starting to believe the negative attacks.
“Most people had already made up their minds about Mitch McConnell, but she needed to make a case for herself. Contrasting with McConnell wasn’t enough,” he said.
“They need to have a message that allows voters to see her as a credible alternative — I don’t know that she’s made that case yet,” Cauley said.
In response to the spate of bad poll numbers, the Grimes campaign recently released its own internal poll showing her up by 1 point. It also notes that at this time in McConnell’s 2008 campaign, a good year for Democrats, his opponent was double digits behind the Republican but lost by a little more than 5 points on Election Day.
Grimes pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill, said his poll modeled “the likely electorate, not just likely voters,” and pointed to his success rate in other races when his results deviated from public surveys.
Other Democrats in the state are defending Grimes’s campaign. Former Rep. Mike Ward (D-Ky.) told The Hill that Gimes’s was “the best run campaign I have seen in the state of Kentucky, and Alison’s top-notch team is going to continue executing the solid strategy they have implemented for over a year now.”
Grimes’s campaign argues that despite the attacks and money spent against it, it remains in striking distance of a win.
“After Mitch McConnell and his allies have spent over $35 million, nearly every poll shows us well within the margin of error and our internals continue to show us taking the lead. Our campaign remains confident in our strategy and well-positioned to win,” Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said. “Despite what the Washington cocktail circuit may say, Mitch McConnell is about to be beat.”
Cross said Grimes’s newest ad may indicate her campaign can still establish the case for why she should replace McConnell. It features a clip of Grimes speaking to an enthusiastic crowd, laying out three main planks of her agenda: raising the minimum wage, fair pay and job-training programs for veterans.
“This is perhaps her best ad yet, giving a concise statement of what she’s for, bracketed by jabs at McConnell,” he said in an email. “I think it’s still a little too negative, but it’s an improvement.”
Democrats have also worried that Grimes has been too scripted on the trail and should spend more time meeting with voters in casual settings.
“She’s a great retail politician, and I don’t think that they’ve used that to their fullest advantage,” another Kentucky Democratic operative said.
Indeed, Cross called the fact that Grimes hasn’t established a sizable lead among female voters “really curious.” A CNN/ORC poll showed her only leading among women by 7 points.
“She’s too rehearsed and scripted and pandering, and women are more skeptical of phoniness,” Cross said.
Democrats all made suggestions for how Grimes could improve her strategy, but they all noted one cause for the candidate’s rocky past month.
It’s known in Kentucky political circles that Grimes’s father, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, has had an outsized influence on her campaign, one that some Democrats say has been to the detriment of her overall strategy.
Lundergan, one Kentucky Democrat said, is “a pretty strong personality,” one who’s known to keep his own counsel. Cross said he’s long seen Lundergan as a possible liability for the campaign.
“I’ve always thought they needed some person in Kentucky who understood the state but had national campaign experience, somebody who could look Jerry Lundergan in the eye and tell him no,” he said.
Cross suggested that with different leadership, Grimes would’ve avoided the negative press she’s incurred surrounding her use of various campaign resources owned by her father, including her campaign bus, which news reports suggested her campaign rented at a lower-than-market rate.
Indeed, one Democratic operative in the state said her campaign team is “not up on Campaign 101. They didn’t cross their t’s and dot their i’s.”
Grimes’s rocky September has upped the ante for the candidates’ lone televised debate, on Oct. 13, just three weeks before the election.
“She’s gotta stand shoulder to shoulder with that guy,” at the debate, Cauley said.
“If she can come out of that debate, and not win but stand tall right next to him on the same stage, she can make her case,” he said.
Republicans dismiss the idea that a change could make any difference and say her biggest liability is the president’s unpopularity in the conservative state.
“Alison Lundergan Grimes is Obama’s candidate in this race, and her biggest problem is not her strategy or her people, but that most Kentuckians think one Obama in Washington is enough, and they’re not about to send another as their senator,” McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said.
In recent weeks, Grimes’s campaign has stepped up its attacks, hammering McConnell in ads for his absences from committee hearings and votes on Medicare.
She’s also rolled out a pair of evocative ads meant to stir up a positive emotional reaction in viewers, one in which she goes skeet shooting to show her distance from Obama, and another featuring her grandmother telling the story of her grandfather’s stroke.
But the Kentucky Democratic strategist said, planned or not, Grimes needs to keep it up — or else.
“Alison’s stepped-up activity is critical because time is running out,” the strategist said.