But in the final week of the campaign, something unexpected happened. Polls began to show that not only were Grimes’ favorable ratings going down fast, but McConnell’s were improving. This was shown to be the case in exit polls conducted on Election Day. These voters gave McConnell a favorable rating of 48 percent – unheard of in any poll done in the last few years – which matched his unfavorable rating. Meanwhile, Grimes’ favorable rating plunged to 40 percent, while her unfavorables rocketed to 57 percent. When asked which candidate was the target of the most unfair ads, they did not say Grimes, but McConnell. After all, the McConnell camp had pointed out that fact-checkers had debunked Grimes’ ads, while McConnell’s ads had him Krogering and playing with adorable hound dogs.

alison-grimesThe ads targeting Grimes were so effective not only because she had not defined herself, but also because Grimes played right into them with her tortured explanations for why she would not answer if she voted for Obama in The Courier-Journal editorial board interview and KET Senate debate. Grimes’ explanation – that she wouldn’t tell us because she was somehow protecting our right to a secret ballot – was not believed by anyone, even her most loyal supporters. The fear of avoiding a two second sound byte in a TV ad wound up backfiring, as McConnell’s ads full of media talking heads bashing her answer likely did more harm to her credibility than any ad saying she voted for Obama would have.

Many have speculated this non-answer on Obama – and perhaps her attacks on the EPA and immigrants, as well as her reluctance to embrace Kynect and the Affordable Care Act – is what wound up depressing her urban base of Democratic supporters.

But the better question to ask is whether a different candidate – one who fields questions fearlessly and is open enough to let her personality show – could have embraced such policies and made the race competitive by firing up an army of voters? An examination of the exit polls hints that this might have been the case.

On the issue of coal, the exit poll found nearly half of voters said the government does not do enough to protect the environment. Anyone listening to both McConnell and Grimes would be shocked to discover such people exist. But of those voters, a full 33 percent voted for McConnell, while Grimes only picked up half of that amount from those who believe the government does too much. Would those 33 percent of voters have voted for a candidate that engaged in an honest discussion about the future of coal and eastern Kentucky? It’s hard to say, but Kentucky has never had a viable statewide candidate try. And one other point from the election results is clear: The voters of eastern Kentucky didn’t believe Grimes anyway, as she lost several counties by well over 30 percent that Democrats like Bruce Lunsford actually won just six years ago.

An even stronger argument can be made from the exit polls that Grimes might have been able to embrace the health care revolution in Kentucky brought forth by the Affordable Care Act and use it to her advantage.

Only 46 percent of voters said the Affordable Care Act went too far, while a larger percentage said it was about right or did not go far enough. Once again, 33 percent of those wanting to push health care reform forward voted for McConnell, who repeatedly said he wanted to pull out the law root and branch. Likewise, the exit poll found half of voters said Kynect is working well, while only 37 percent said it was not. Once again, 34 percent of those who like Kynect said they voted for McConnell, who wants to repeal the ACA and render the exchange useless.

Could Grimes have managed to win over this third of voters if she didn’t run away from the issue, and could she have picked up even more votes by educating more of the public about its benefits? It’s difficult to answer that hypothetically because Grimes did not try it, but exit polls don’t rule it out. Nor does the fact that the most popular politician in the state, Gov. Steve Beshear, has been the face of the Affordable Care Act and Kynect over the past year, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt him one bit. Also of note is that the attack ads against Grimes barely ever mentioned Obamacare, suggesting that even though Grimes said she wasn’t in favor of repealing the law, McConnell’s people knew it wasn’t an effective message.

Official PortraitThese questions bring up one of the big differences in Kentucky between establishment Democrats and Republicans. When Democrats see bad poll numbers on an issue, they run away screaming. When Republicans see bad poll numbers on an issue, they figure out a way to change the public’s opinion on it.

Democrats would rather rely on the low hanging fruit of what is popular and avoid any messy fights so they can live to see another day in the short term. Increasing the minimum wage and pay equity legislation are both popular, but is that really all you need to get those same people out to the polls? A relatively small percentage of voters would be directly affected by a minimum wage increase, and while pay equity is popular, how many women face this directly in their workplace and are clamoring to have the legal means to fight it?

You need a broader message that includes more than a few popular initiatives in order to create a large and dedicated voting block, and that did not happen Tuesday. But how has defining yourself as the party that runs away from anyone remotely attached to Obama worked for them? On Tuesday, they suffered an embarrassing blowout defeat, and the national leader of their party that they seek to discredit and deny is still there, as unpopular as he’s ever been.

Regardless of any hypotheticals on what Grimes could have done differently on specific issues, the rapid descent of Grimes from a competitive race to a 15 percent blowout in a matter of weeks shows that voters dissatisfied with McConnell were willing to give Grimes the time to make her case, but she never did. When choosing between McConnell and the candidate who they did not trust, they either hopped aboard Team Mitch or simply stayed home. Blank slates might work against an incompetent unpopular politician, but Mitch McConnell proved he is a skilled artist with a $50 million arsenal of paint, and that kind of opponent will win every time.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]