As we mentioned Wednesday, no one was shocked that Alison Lundergan Grimes fell short in her bid to defeat Sen. Mitch McConnell, but her shellacking by over 15 percent was a jaw-dropper. Most reporters and pundits already had their post-mortem obituary ready on why McConnell won but had to frantically amend it to account for the fact that the race was a blowout just 30 minutes after the polls closed.
These Grimes campaign obituaries vary widely: Some blame incompetent management, some credit a first-rate McConnell campaign, some say Grimes went overboard on distancing herself from the president, and some say Grimes never had a chance. There’s at least a grain of validity to each claim, but there’s little doubt the Grimes’ campaign was flawed given the blowout. And when a campaign that most signs show was competitive weeks earlier suddenly falls to such a wide margin of defeat on Election Day, it seems clear they built their foundation on shaky ground.
That being said, it would be negligent not to note that Grimes was facing some brisk headwinds from the beginning. Running for federal office in a state where the leader of your national party has an approval rating in the mid-to-low 30s and lost by 23 percent two years ago sounds to many like a suicide mission, especially when the leadership of the Democratic Party in Kentucky has spent the last six years explaining how Obama is destroying coal and the lives of people in eastern Kentucky. On top of that, how about running against an aggressive campaigner who, along with his allied groups, has $50 million to spend? Not many people have the guts to take on such a bruising task – but Grimes did.
However, there’s little doubt McConnell’s self-described “presidential-level” campaign was anything but leading up to his primary. They were plagued by several self-inflicted wounds, many from then-campaign manager Jesse Benton, which McConnell himself admitted to Politico on Wednesday. While Benton was key in securing McConnell’s vital alliance with Sen. Rand Paul and other Tea Party figures, his move to the background and eventual disappearance from McConnell’s general election coincided with the campaign righting the ship under Josh Holmes, which wasn’t a coincidence.
But at the very least, Grimes had an opportunity to make Tuesday’s election competitive, and the overarching reason she didn’t give herself that chance was the hermetically sealed bubble in which Grimes’ intellect and personality was locked by her campaign. Her campaign repeatedly touted how “disciplined” she was, never going off script and saying something that could end up in an attack ad. Some extent of discipline is needed for any campaign, but they took this to an extreme that ended up defining her as a candidate and left many wondering who she was, what she believed, and whether she was up for the job. And any young, relatively unknown candidate presenting herself as a mostly blank slate is especially vulnerable.
There isn’t a Kentucky political reporter whose opinion I respect more than CNHI’s Ronnie Ellis, who says one of the biggest errors of Grimes’ campaign was not putting ads on the air during McConnell’s primary fight with Matt Bevin so she could fully introduce herself to voters. The only problem with that theory is it assumes she ever fully introduced herself to voters at any point in the campaign. To a large extent, she never did.
Grimes’ reluctance to give in-depth interviews has been written about extensively, as well as her robotic talking-point answers that too often failed to provide detail on her positions. (I only received eight minutes to interview her in the entire campaign, and she didn’t directly answer a single question.) This was surprising to many who covered her 2011 race for secretary of state, where she came across as intelligent, candid and warm.
There were only about six things people knew about Alison Lundergan Grimes from this campaign, and she repeated them – and little else – over and over again. She is for increasing the minimum wage. She is for gender pay equity legislation and the Violence Against Women Act. She is for union rights. She is for creating jobs in Kentucky. She is not Mitch McConnell, who is against all of these things. She is for coal and gun rights, and she is not Barack Obama.
There were some other policies she mentioned and some details here or there, but they were never effectively presented. How many Kentuckians read her jobs plan, or knew how she was going to pay for any of its proposals?
Nor were voters given any real glimpse into who Grimes is as an individual. The fabulous writer Anne Marshall attempted to answer that last question in her profile of Grimes for Louisville Magazine, but was repeatedly stymied at the gates of the Grimes bubble. When Marshall asked Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst to provide an interesting nugget about Grimes that few people know, he replied, “She loves Swedish Fish.” Eventually Marshall got her very quick interview with Grimes and talked about some personal details, but those were limited to subscribers to the magazine, and buried within a story that quite correctly portrayed her as a talking point machine that remains a mystery to many voters.