PADUCAH, Ky. -– Sitting at a mahogany table on her new campaign bus, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes used her first substantive interview on issues to toss a nasty jab at her foe, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, and to begin unveiling her own positions in the high-profile Kentucky Senate race.
With an icy smile, the 34-year-old Grimes scoffed at the notion that she was philosophically or politically close to President Barack Obama, who is so unpopular here that he is mentioned by Kentucky Democrats fewer times than Voldemort ever was at Hogwarts.
“The president and I disagree on a lot of things,” she said. “Sen. McConnell will use the same tactics that the GOP has used in other red states, and try to claim that I was a cheerleader for President Obama.
“Well, I am as much a cheerleader for President Obama as Sen. McConnell is a Chippendale dancer.”
It was funny -– and definitely not nice. Even the thought of the doughy, 71-year-old McConnell in a dancer’s outfit might be enough to cost him a sixth term.
In a wide-ranging, half-hour interview, Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state and presumptive Democratic Senate nominee for 2014, told me that she was pro-choice down the line on abortion, and that she would delay the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that small businesses provide medical coverage to their employees.
The two statements were her first substantive comments on policy matters. Until now she has spent most of her time attacking McConnell as the embodiment of all that is corrupt and unproductive about Washington.
The interview took place on the eve of the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic, a church-sponsored day of politicking and speechifying on a rural expanse in the far-western Purchase region of Kentucky.
Grimes is one of five daughters in a devout Catholic family in Lexington. “I am a practicing Catholic,” she told me. “But I’m also for separation of church and state. I am supportive of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. And I think that this is the kind of choice that has to be up to the woman, her God and her doctor.”
On the Affordable Care Act -– Obama’s signature legislative measure -– Grimes was cautiously critical. “I am troubled by some of the provisions,” she said, and for the first time said exactly which one.
“There are 700,000 businesses in Kentucky and I am concerned that especially the smaller ones are overburdened,” she said.
Her suggestion: delay the imposition of the coverage mandate on small business, as the president already has done for larger corporations.
“The mandate will not work for many small businesses in Kentucky,” she said, “so I believe that a delay is the right course so that changes can be made.”
She also blasted McConnell for wanting to abandon the law altogether, pointing out that the state’s health ratings are among the worst in the nation, and that other provisions in the law will extend coverage to an estimated 600,000 more Kentuckians.
“Unlike Sen. McConnell, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said. Of course McConnell is being blasted by tea party conservatives for his refusal -– so far -– to sign a letter that would force the issue by tying the next budget and debt-ceiling bills to the “defunding” of the ACA.
“He has a tightrope to walk,” Grimes observed, not sympathetically.
Her opening gambits on the issues are revealing for what they show about her beliefs and the strategy -- disagree with Washington Democratic orthodoxy when she can; hew to it when it is useful.
A pure pro-choice view is a must in the Democratic Party, if for no other reason than so many women activists are motivated to vote for –- and work for -– the party because of their strong belief in that view.
Grimes clearly wants to tap the fast-growing power of women in the Democratic Party, a phenomenon with a surprisingly long history in Kentucky politics.
She stressed the female mentors in her life -– a teacher who taught her rhetoric, her mother and grandmothers, her four sisters. She proudly stated that she is the “youngest female secretary of state in the nation.”
It sounded like a rather obscure claim when she made it at the Marshall County Bean Supper in nearby Kentucky Lakes on Friday night.
But it drew a big round of applause -– even bigger than the one Marshall County Judge/Executive Mike Miller got when he auctioned off a donated “whole hog” for $350.
Her speech was primarily sound-bitten attacks on McConnell. It was well received, if only because Democratic loyalists deeply despise McConnell.
But to win -– she is in a dead-heat in some recent polls –- she will have to come of age on the fly in the midst of a grueling, 15-month race from here to November 2014.
Nobody really knows who she is or what she really stands for, but she began the process of saying so Friday night.
Next stop, Fancy Farm.