Dems’ Kentucky ‘closer’ jabs in early rounds of fight with McConnell

Alison Lundergan Grimes, fighting to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), is pressing her opponent to get specific on major issues, including US military action in Syria — but she is studiously vague on her own views.

The Kentucky Democrat was known as the “closer” in mock trials at law school, but in the toughest case of her political career, she is displaying more caution than killer instinct.

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Hoping that she is David to a five-term Goliath with seemingly bottomless campaign funds, Lundergan Grimes has stepped around the issues and pivoted back to McConnell. She has mastered the nonanswer answer.

Asked by The Hill about criticism over a statement to a local news outlet that she was “monitoring” the case for U.S. engagement in Syria, Grimes talked about McConnell’s own indecision on the issue.

“I’m very excited about the energy and momentum that is growing behind our campaign, and it’s easy to criticize,” she told The Hill.
“But being mum on issues of national security is not being a leader,” she said of McConnell.

Lundergan Grimes went on to call for an exit strategy on Syria intervention.

In response to another question about how much of a drag she expected President Obama to have on her campaign, Lundergan Grimes said she “disagrees with the president on a number of issues, from coal to the Affordable Care Act to the budget.”

Still, she offered few specifics and again refocused on her opponent.

“Sen. McConnell had the chance to run — not once but twice — against the president. In the Senate, he made it his top priority to make Obama a one-term president. He failed at that, and in the process, lost focus on what’s important,” she told The Hill.

The responses follow a pattern for Lundergan Grimes, 34, a rising star in Kentucky politics who national Democrats believe may be the party’s best chance for a Senate pickup in 2014.

In the two months since she’s launched her campaign, Lundergan Grimes has given few one-on-one interviews. Most have been guarded affairs.

During those interviews, she has avoided setting down opinions on a number of hot-button issues that could give her trouble in the race, including on an assault weapons ban, immigration reform and higher taxes on the wealthy.

It’s a strategy that Democratic strategists contend makes sense for a candidate who has only run statewide once before, is relatively inexperienced at speaking off the cuff and who may have the most to lose of any Democratic candidate nationwide if she makes a misstep.

“There’s no need to [get specific] at this point. It’s a long way to Election Day. The voters aren’t going to tune in until the next year, summer, at the earliest,” said Achim Bergmann, a Democratic strategist in Kentucky who advised McConnell’s last opponent, 2008 Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford.

Another reason for Lundergan Grimes to mind her words early on: McConnell’s famously aggressive campaign tactics.

McConnell has said he’s adopting a “Whac-A-Mole” strategy in his campaign, hitting opponents hard and fast. Any unscripted moments offer an opportunity for him to pounce on Lundergan Grimes.

Bergmann said he expects Lundergan Grimes’s campaign is preparing her for tough questions on a wide swath of issues and that she’ll be able to articulate her positions well in 2014.

“Many candidates say things that can be taken as less than prepared,” he said. “I think they’ll work that out, and she’ll have it down by next year.”

But Republicans already sense in some of Lundergan Grimes’s answers a weakness on policy details.

Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, derisively called Lundergan Grimes “an empty dress.”

He said Lundergan Grimes attacks McConnell with talking points used by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the same purpose.

“Alison Lundergan Grimes seems incapable of articulating her own thoughts, and faced with questions, either directly parrots the talking points handed to her by [Sen.] Chuck Schumer or she babbles incoherently and stares blankly into the camera as though she’s a freshman in high school struggling to remember the CliffsNotes after forgetting to read her homework assignment,” Dayspring told The Hill.

Lundergan Grimes has been particularly careful in discussing ObamaCare, which is unpopular in Kentucky.

Asked by local news station WHAS11 whether she thought ObamaCare will raise premiums for seniors and should be postponed, Grimes again avoided a direct answer.

“As I’ve said before, I’m troubled with certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act.”

Lundergan Grimes’s aides contend the candidate has been specific on issues, coming out in favor of abortion rights and pushing for a higher minimum wage.

They also note she’s detailed ways to fix ObamaCare. She has suggested “streamlining the process so we are not overregulating” businesses, providing incentives for businesses to sign up their employees and taking action to prevent a physician shortfall when new enrollees go to get treatment.

If there is one thing Democrats worry about, it is in the potential for Lundergan Grimes to make off-the-cuff statements on issues she may not be as well versed in as McConnell.

“They have work to do in preparing a secretary of state to run for U.S. Senate, particularly on foreign relations,” Bergmann said. “That’s always a challenge.”

But longtime friends say it’s a mistake to underestimate Lundergan Grimes’s command of facts and ability to make a winning case.

Amy Tobias, who was Grimes’s mock trial partner during her years at American University’s Washington College of Law, said she usually opened their trials and Grimes closed.

“‘Closing’ is bringing everything together at the end and telling a little bit of the story. You really try to hit home with the points and what you’re trying to say,” Tobias said.

“She was kind of good about bringing it all together at the end.”