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Dear World: No, America Is Still Not United

Howard Fineman   |   November 6, 2014    7:34 AM ET

NEW YORK -- It would be nice to think that, after years of ever-deeper anger, division and paralysis, the U.S. government would unite -- out of exhaustion, if nothing else.

It would be nice to think that a humbled President Barack Obama and his emboldened Republican foes would join hands to deal with our obvious public problems: Immigration policy, debt, foreign policy, education, infrastructure.

It would be nice, but it would be wrong.

The prospect for the next two years is one of limited substantive progress, but intense political positioning for, yes, the next election.

If the U.S. were a parliamentary democracy, the government would have fallen as a result of Tuesday’s election.

But in America, with its Newtonian clockwork of dispersed authority, the political losers and the winners are supposed to work jointly and earnestly on a governing agenda.

They rarely do that.

Honoring tradition, the president and the new leader of the opposition, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, pledged open minds and hearts and a desire to cooperate.

And there, in fact, may be some new laws on global trade, energy, corporate taxes, and a few other matters. Republicans and Obama may able to assemble a mostly Republican alliance of business-friendly members of Congress.

But on the big, emotional issues -- health care, immigration policy, the seemingly endless “war on terror,” even education policy -- the world should not expect much. The cultural chasms are too deep.

There is no doubt that Obama was sobered, if not humiliated, in this midterm election. One reason is the ebb and flow of American politics. The president’s party almost always loses seats in the sixth year of an eight-year administration.

But this was a drubbing on all levels.

Obama's (liberal) Democratic Party lost control of the Senate to the (conservative) Republicans for the first time in nearly a decade. Republicans strengthened their already strong grip on the House of Representatives. They won governorships in many key states, including Obama’s Illinois. And they won more state legislatures that, among other things, draw the lines for congressional election districts.

There are indeed some factors that favor an effort at cooperation.

The main one is Americans’ collective disgust at the way elections work and the way Washington does not. Voters are smarter than the commercially bizarre way we run elections, and they resent the sloppy, cynical system they live in.

After all, Americans have just survived an election season in which $4 billion -- yes $4 billion -- was spent on TV advertising, in which Republicans tore down Obama as a wimp and a socialist (a confusing combination) and Democrats depicted Republicans as misogynistic predators eager to rip intravenous tubes from grandma’s arm.

Republicans have prospered in the Obama years by trying to block every initiative he has to offer, and then blaming the resulting gridlock on him. This plays into the American myth about the globe-girdling power of the presidency, and it has worked to make Obama look weak.

But they now have an incentive to show that they can be grown-ups as they lay the groundwork for whomever their presidential candidate is in 2016. Successful presidential campaigns don’t win on anger, but on hopeful ideas.

McConnell, soon to be Republican leader in the Senate at age 72, has reason to want a legacy of constructive action.

So those are reasons to think that things will get done.

But there is another side of the ledger.

Republicans have gotten where they are in the last few years by opposing the president at every turn. Why should they stop now?

The activist core of their party remains vehemently antagonistic to Obama, and Republican leaders ignore that at their peril.

The president himself is not the kind of politician who relishes the grimy trading of favors that is at the heart of politics. He thinks in intellectual constructs, and he doesn’t enjoy the game for its own sake.

And American politics as now constructed is a money-drive proposition based on the profits of discord. Campaign consultants make millions; TV stations make hundreds of millions; billionaires are free to throw their weight around like oligarchs in Russia. Parties play to their own extremes to stoke emotion and harvest contributions.

It is as though the seating in the House of Commons were reversed. Instead of facing each other, the parties are facing outward to their most mindlessly steadfast supporters outside the building.

It would be nice to think that that will change, but it won't.

Mitch McConnell Claims To Admire Collegial Leaders, But Can He Be One?

Howard Fineman   |   November 4, 2014   11:50 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In his Capitol Hill office, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proudly displays an oil painting of his state’s most famous senator, Henry Clay, “The Great Pacificator” and unifying statesman of 19th century America. But as the 72-year-old McConnell prepares to take over as Senate majority leader, a job he’s spent decades plotting to win, it’s not clear whether he can be -- or wants to be -- another Clay.

McConnell has said recently that the past majority leaders he most admires are two Democrats -- Mike Mansfield of Montana, who moved most of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, and George Mitchell of Maine, who was noted for his diplomatic and collegial style.

On Election Day, McConnell staffers referred me to a speech their boss had made in which he vowed to run a more bipartisan and consultative Senate than now exists. He would be Clay, Mansfield and Mitchell all rolled into one.

Many of his critics scoff at the notion. “Mitch is about one thing,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “The accumulation of power.”

McConnell may conclude, however, that he must play the Clay role to consolidate that power.

In philosophy and operating style, the two couldn’t be more different -- at least so far.

Clay was a border-state political diplomat who forged historic deals that held the nation together for decades before slavery and the Civil War tore it apart. He championed an “American system” of federal spending to knit the country together with new roads, canals and other infrastructure. He favored an active role for central government in finance, taxes, banking and tariffs to build the muscles of a continental nation.

If there is a theme to McConnell’s long tenure in the Senate, it’s the contrary: to oppose federal action to deal with domestic social problems, to limit the role of government wherever he can in favor of corporate power, and to feed the fears of those who feel aggrieved by Washington's decisions. On the campaign trail this year, he has vowed to dismantle Obamacare “root and branch,” to unravel environmental regulations on the use of coal and other carbon energy sources, and to curb federal authority over elections, campaign spending, banking and much of the rest of the regulatory state.

But philosophy is just the half of it. Clay was known for his gentle demeanor, his gentlemanly tact and his eagerness to see the world and America from as many sides as possible.

McConnell is personally gruff and aloof, and his syrupy delivery on the Senate floor is often laced with the acid of unremitting partisanship and dismissive scorn for his foes. He makes enemies easily and seems to cherish his resentments. For example, Yarmuth said McConnell refuses to acknowledge him on flights to and from the capital, even though they were once close friends.

Pollster John Zogby recalled an incident years ago when McConnell repeatedly interrupted a polling presentation to the GOP with cries of “Bulls**t!” from the audience. (Zogby’s message, as it happened, was that the Republican Party needed to take a more bipartisan approach to legislating.)

Ironically, McConnell’s partisan ferocity doesn’t impress tea party Republicans, who worked against him in the primary and refused to endorse him. They see him as a fraudulent conservative whose deepest desire is not to pursue an agenda of ideas but merely to defend the establishment he has spent decades trying to control.

McConnell has done his share of bipartisan deals in the Senate, but almost always on his own terms and almost always after he helped create the crisis that he then takes credit for ending.

Now he must keep the peace among potential Republican presidential candidates in the Senate (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and perhaps Rob Portman), pacify the tea party wing while showing that the GOP is “ready to govern,” deal with the hapless Republican leadership in the House, and even reach out to President Barack Obama, who has reason to be wary.

McConnell has the skill to bridge divides within the GOP in the Senate, and maybe in Congress as a whole. That will be his first challenge. Whether he can speak to the whole country and try to bring Americans together -- and whether he wants to -- will become clear in the months ahead.

Congressman On Voting His Conscience: 'If You Can't Live With Yourself, You Can't Represent The People'

Howard Fineman   |   November 3, 2014    7:31 AM ET

GREENVILLE, N.C. - Before the midterms' tidal wave of cynical bilge recedes, it's worth noting that there are still people in politics who risk it all for the sake of conscience.

Let's be clear: Rep. Walter Jones, Jr., the Republican who represents North Carolina's 3rd District (and who will almost certainly be re-elected on Tuesday), is no saint.

The 71-year-old son of a congressman who also represented eastern North Carolina, Jones, first elected in 1994, is steeped in the political game and in the region's insular, sometimes resentful conservative ways.

And despite his shy, polite demeanor, Jones can be hard-edged. He switched parties to get elected, abandoning generations of Democratic ties. He occasionally appears on radio shows that make Rush Limbaugh's seem like NPR.

Jones is also aligning himself with the nascent presidential bid of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in part because he considers himself a close friend of Paul's father, the libertarian renegade and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Still, Jones -- who converted to Catholicism in 1977, and who has been a devout parishioner ever since -- is that unusual congressman who says, convincingly, that his religious faith led him to a dramatic change of position that could have cost him his seat.

The story is familiar to those who closely followed the political course of the 2003-2011 Iraq War. But its most recent chapter has gotten little attention in this year's campaign.

During a recent two-hour interview in his Greenville office, Jones talked about how his faith ended up guiding his view of that war -- and how it now guides his view of what U.S. policy should be in the Middle East, and his view of defense spending in general.

Once a sure vote for all things military, Jones has become deeply suspicious of using force to solve America's problems. And he has broadened his critique to include the corrupting role of money in American politics, and the estrangement of Washington from the rest of the country.

In his eighth decade of life, Jones has become something of a mild-mannered radical.

He has been kicked off a key assignment for the House Financial Services Committee and vows, if re-elected, not to buy his way back into the good graces of the House GOP leadership by promising to raise money.

"I got a little note from one of my Republican friends that I owe the RNC something like $250,000," said Jones. "And you know that that's not an obligation like a bank, but you know, I'm thinking: You kicked me off of a committee!" He said that he "absolutely [would] not" raise the money asked of him.

Representing one of the nation's highest concentrations of military installations, families and retirees, Jones was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War in 2003. It was Jones, among others, who suggested that the House cafeteria change the name of french fries to "freedom fries" because of Gallic reluctance to support the war.

But later that year, while attending a funeral in East Carolina for a man killed early in the war, Jones had what he said was a religious revelation: The war was wrong, because this young man had died.

"That was the defining moment," he said. "Was I going to be a man of principle? Was I going to be a man who could admit that I had made a mistake? Or was I just going to continue the political journey of getting along, of being Mr. Nice Guy?"

"I knew I had done the wrong thing," Jones went on. "The funeral, the funeral..."

He said that he felt tremendous guilt. He discussed it with his priest. He began to study more closely the evidence offered to justify the war, and decided that he had been manipulated, and had perhaps been too willing to believe.

At one point in the following weeks, during a meeting with intelligence officials, Jones said, he broke down in tears at the thought that he could have known more, and known it sooner. "Maybe I could have stopped the march to war," he said.

He said that it "took weeks, not months," to announce his change of heart.

Jones now offers to sign letters of condolence to kin of any U.S. military person killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He does this not only when the deceased is from North Carolina, but for families everywhere in the country. Most families agree to receive one.

"I went through a year of my personality change," he said. "Because of my pain, I had some friends who disagreed with me. But I was very strong in saying that the intelligence had been manipulated, that there was no reason to go to Iraq. Even today I continue to think about the mistake I made. That's why I sign the letters every weekend."

Jones' foes within the GOP -- and there are many -- bided their time waiting for the moment to try to take him out.

The GOP establishment tried it this spring, handpicking and funding Taylor Griffin, a young former member of the George W. Bush administration. Aided by "independent" funding from neocon hard-liners, Griffin came relatively close to defeating Jones, but lost the May primary with 44 percent of the vote to Jones' 53 percent.

Jones now says that while nominally a Republican, he doesn't think of himself as a party man at all.

"When my party is right, I vote with my party. When they are not, I don't vote with them," he said. "That's what gets me in trouble in primaries."

Having survived the challenge from Griffin earlier this year, he is coasting to victory in the general election. He is both agonized and inspired by his experience.

"If you can't live with yourself, you can't represent the people," he said, and sounded like a man praying that he can do both.

10 Things To Know If The GOP Runs The Senate

Howard Fineman   |   October 20, 2014    2:02 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- It’s easy to think that little will change if Republicans win the Senate. They won’t have a filibuster-proof majority. The place is a sinkhole of inaction. Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell are withered peas in a pod. Torpor will reign, right?

Wrong. The numbers and images are deceiving. A GOP victory would scramble the higher math of power and policy in the Senate, in the final two years of President Barack Obama’s administration, and in the 2016 presidential race. The earthquake wouldn’t level cities, but it would shake foundations.

Here’s how:

A Deal on Immigration? Many scoff at the notion. “The issue just tears the Republican Party apart,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “It is too divisive for them to touch.” But Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for one, wants a deal. “The president needs a new legacy item, so he might accept less,” the Republican lawmaker told me recently. “I’ll urge our side in the Senate to reach out to him.”

Trade Pacts. There would be a chance for trade deals, produced by a coalition of pro-corporate Republicans (the tea party notwithstanding, that’s still almost all of them) and moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “I think there is a lot of room on trade,” Paul said.

Probing Panels. Committees amplify the clout of even thin Senate majorities. GOP chairmen would have relatively untrammeled subpoena power. Expect them to use it to bear down on administration officials, highlight shortcomings and give Republican senators with White House hopes some prosecutorial airtime.

Nominations. If President Obama wants to get a new attorney general confirmed -- or judges for that matter -- he might want to focus his efforts on the lame duck session. With Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa as chairman of the Judiciary Committee (he’s in line for the job), all bets would be off. Obama's picks could be bottled up in committee and denied a floor vote. Grassley has also expressed an eagerness to launch investigations, which is not good news for nominees involved in controversial matters at the White House.

Old McConnell's Farm. Kentucky’s 72-year-old senior senator has worked for decades to obtain the job that is now within his grasp. If he took over as majority leader, that grasp would become an iron grip. He has vowed, publicly and privately, to stop any bills to raise the minimum wage, strengthen federal guarantees of pay equity or tighten rules on the use of coal. Would a Democratic majority be able to pass such bills? No. Would they even be debated under the GOP? No.

The 2016 Circus. The majority leader controls the floor, and with at least four GOP presidential hopefuls in the Senate, McConnell would play choreographer in the run-up to the 2016 contest. If he wins his own race this November, his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, one of those hopefuls, will be a key reason. Do they have a deal? While McConnell would be under pressure to remain neutral, Paul could handle the shuttle diplomacy between McConnell’s “establishment” crew and the tea party faction led by renegade Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Ramrod Votes. McConnell decried Reid’s move last year to shield judicial nominees from the filibuster, ensuring they can be confirmed by a simple majority. Would he undo what Reid did? Not clear. But it is clear that he would use special rules for must-pass budgets in order to attach pro-corporate amendments reducing taxes, loosening bank regulation and cutting funding for Obamacare.

The New Fulcrum. There is a slim possibility that the Senate could have four independent members next year, four lawmakers not formally affiliated with the major parties, and they might form a new and unpredictable center of power. Democratic centrists such as Manchin and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania would also have clout with a GOP majority, and therefore a more influential role. Among Republicans, moderates such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine would be key votes.

Reid Redux? If the Democrats lose the Senate, will 74-year-old Harry Reid remain as their leader? He’s running for re-election in Nevada in 2016; colleagues would be loath to try to strip him of his title in advance of what will be another tough race. They also like him and respect his political and organizational acumen. But Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York hungers for the top Democratic job, and he is close to the party’s likely 2016 presidential nominee, one Hillary Clinton.

Next Turn. As bad a year as 2014 seems to be for Senate Democrats, early projections show that 2016 could be even worse for the GOP, which will have twice as many Senate seats at stake then. Between now and then, it isn’t likely that voters will have learned to love politics, let alone the Senate. Republicans know their tenure could be brief, so McConnell and Company may tread a little lightly. Or not.

Remember The Fresh Promise Of Barack Obama? What Happened To That Guy?

Howard Fineman   |   October 13, 2014    7:39 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- While traveling recently, I’ve been asked the same question in Beijing, Auckland and Rome: “What happened to Barack Obama?”

This really is several questions: What happened to that fresh, idealistic guy? What happened to his power and popularity in the United States? Why doesn’t he dominate the political stage the way he once did? Why isn’t he as effective as we thought he would be?

Some answers:

The Middle East. The region that initially made him look wise now makes him look, at best, confused. His promise to end what turned out to be a nine-year war in Iraq helped win him the presidency. But while Osama bin Laden is gone, the Islamic State terrorizes people in his place. And the president who won a Nobel Prize for idealistic aims is raining bombs on Syrian territory and resisting calls to put “boots on the ground.”

Words Matter. Trained as a lawyer, Obama should be aware of the uses of ambiguity. But he makes sweeping declarations that damage his credibility. He assured all Americans that his health care plan would allow them to “keep their doctor.” It wasn’t quite true. He declared that if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons, the U.S. would respond severely. He did and we didn’t. Obama said that Ebola was “highly unlikely” to come to America; two weeks later a victim died in Dallas.

Sky-High Expectations. Obama arrived on the stage with Kennedy cool, youthful optimism, Ivy League credentials and self-evident proof that America was overcoming its "original sin." His life story was a triumph of multiracialism and internationalism. By his very nature, he would end wars, make peace with Islam, help the downtrodden and save the U.S. and world economy. These expectations (which he did his best to stoke) were impossible to meet. He hasn’t met them. No one could.

The Internet. Obama’s rise was meteoric even by American standards. The reasons in part are digital. He is the first viral “personal brand” in the White House. But politics are even more fickle in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram -- and more fragmented. Obama succeeded six years ago by blazing new pathways around “centralized” media. But now he finds it harder to command attention amid the digital cacophony. The Internet has gone on to other brands and other trends.

The Economy. Obama’s record here is more solid than critics and even some friends admit. His calm support for early bailouts helped prevent catastrophe. His “stimulus” worked somewhat. His team has kept the U.S. economy better positioned than most to compete (and cooperate) with China. Obama’s health care plan, though raggedly implemented, has aided millions and placed needed regulation on insurers.

He got re-elected in 2012 on this record, but still did not win enduring support. Why?

Because the rich have gotten richer while the middle class stagnates. Productivity rises; real wages do not. Obama’s unspoken message is, “Without me, it would have been worse.” He’s right, but it’s hardly an inspiring slogan.

Washington. Obama promised to end government dysfunction. He didn’t. One reason is structural: The U.S. president, however charismatic, is not a party boss, prime minister or king. Our founders divided the power, and it remains divided.

Republicans made it even harder for Obama. New presidents used to get a “honeymoon.” He did not. On the day he took office in 2009, Republicans met to plot his political demise and emerged with a public vow to make him a one-term president.

Race. Americans debate whether, and to what extent, race is a factor in Obama's difficulties. A quality that made him inspiring to so many -- the first African-American in the White House -- makes him a dangerous figure to some. Those who deny that race is a factor at all do not know America. Those who claim that race is everything do not know America, either.

Competence. Obama has avoided a dramatic, Katrina-like administrative catastrophe, and his tenure has been relatively free of venal corruption. But everyday management is another matter. The rollout of his sweeping new health law was a mess, enforcement of border security has been spotty and the initial response to the Ebola outbreak was slow and low-key. The metastasizing Ebola threat could come to dominate the last two years of his term.

Obama Himself. Fiercely proud and self-assured in public, Obama is also cautious and wary. He favors complexity over simplicity. Praised all his life for his gifts and path-breaking accomplishments, he is used to being respected even if he isn’t beloved. He likes to put others at ease and does not seek confrontation. He has climbed the greasy pole through charm and timing more than chesty combat.

His thoughtful, soothing, hopeful nature got him elected. It also made him disdainful of Congress and of unpleasant political realities in general. He brought his own coterie with him from Chicago and the 2008 campaign team, and he still mostly stays cocooned within it. He has not made many friends in Washington -- or bitter personal enemies, for that matter -- and he doesn’t seem to care.

But the world is under siege today, making it easy to conclude that ferocity and confrontation are required. His leadership will be tested in his last two years in office as never before. The U.S. does not lead the way it once did, but its role remains central and indispensable. “What happened to Obama” in the past matters much less than what happens to him now.

Howard Fineman   |   October 8, 2014    8:23 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Coal miners used to take canaries with them underground, where a dying bird would signal the presence of poison gases.

In Kentucky’s Senate race, Democrats think the “canary in the coal mine” for Mitch McConnell might be the arrival of right-wing activist James O’Keefe.

A proudly unscrupulous provocateur, O’Keefe uses hidden cameras and fraudulent identities to try to entrap liberals in compromising videos. He recently sent a crew to search for dirt on the Republican senator’s challenger, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

O’Keefe didn’t find much: a bland, secretly recorded video of low-level Grimes organizers chatting cynically about whether their candidate really was committed to the coal industry.

Neither Grimes not any of her top aides are on the tape or anywhere near it. It’s not a smoking gun; it's not really even a gun.

McConnell top aide Josh Holmes told The Huffington Post that his boss’s campaign did not know O’Keefe’s team was in the state, let alone coordinate with them in any way. “No and no,” he said.

But Democrats suggested out loud that the videographer's presence was a sign of desperation on the other side.

“They are going to try every trick in the book,” said Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst. “This is a dead-even race, and McConnell and his people know that it is.”

That is open to debate.

McConnell has history, big-data geeks and the Beltway pundits on his side as he enters this stretch of the race against Grimes. Everyone says that McConnell remains a relative lock to win on Nov. 4 -- a victory that could enable him to achieve his long-held dream of becoming majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

In fact, he’s won five races in a row and has the number-crunched historical stats with him. President Barack Obama lost big in Kentucky in 2012. Grimes has not impressed observers with the depth of her knowledge of the issues.

So the Kentucky contest is off most lists of pivotal races that will decide which party wins the chamber, in favor of tossups such as Colorado, Alaska and Iowa and other races such as Louisiana, Arkansas, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

But a month until Election Day, the reality on the ground in Kentucky isn’t aligned with a narrative of sleepy inevitability.

McConnell is slightly ahead in composites of the public polls, but the senator has not opened up the expected late, large lead in the race that would cause donors to write it off.

With a sense of urgency if not desperation, the senator and his “independent” big spending allies are dumping huge amounts of cash into the race, with six new ads going up in the last week and a megaton of buys aimed at dominating TV, cable and radio airwaves from Pikeville to Paducah.

Having outspent Grimes and her allies by more than 2-1, anti-Grimes forces may well double that margin between now and Nov. 4.

McConnell’s advertising, and that of his allies, has focused almost entirely on the unpopularity in Kentucky of Obama, who lost the state in 2012 by 18 points.

The latest GOP ads throw standard-issue xenophobia into the mix, conflating Grimes and Obama on immigration policy -- even though she has had nothing to do with it as secretary of state, and even though there is no flood of undocumented immigrants inundating the Bluegrass State.

And yet Grimes refuses to go away, largely because there seems to be a low ceiling on McConnell’s support as a 30-year incumbent who has never been personally popular nor stood for much besides opposing Democratic ideas.

“Mitch can’t get above 47 percent, and that means he can’t win if Alison can make the sale about why she should replace him,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, a close Democratic ally of and adviser to Secretary Grimes.

Although McConnell has pounded away on themes designed to secure the vote of white men in Eastern and Western Kentucky, he hasn’t built huge margins among them, according to Al Cross, a veteran political reporter who now teaches at the University of Kentucky.

Recent polls suggest that Grimes has closed some of the gap among men in rural, small-city Eastern and Western Kentucky, said Cross, who has studied crosstabs of recent polls.

One reason is a widely run ad showing a ruddy-cheeked Grimes confidently shooting skeet and condescendingly lecturing her rival on how to handle a gun. The ad played up Grimes’ sales pitch as an outdoorsy Kentucky thoroughbred who grew up with horses, rifles and basketball -- running against a pallid habitué of Washington meeting rooms and big-donor corporate ballrooms.

“It’s that gun ad,” said Yarmuth. “A lot of her supporters in Louisville didn’t want her to run it, but that is who she is,” he said.

Cultural marketing aside, Grimes has aimed most of her campaign messaging at women, focusing on issues such as gender equality in pay, reproductive rights and health care. Perhaps her No. 1 issue is raising the minimum wage -- a clear and popular message in a poor state.

The pay equity and minimum wage issues appeal to men as well, since most of them live in two-income homes.

Whether any of that will put Grimes over the top -- still a long climb -- is unclear. Perhaps her last clear chance comes next Monday in Lexington, where she’ll take part in an hour-long “conversation” with McConnell moderated by the state’s public TV station.

Grimes will enter that event with a better chance to pull off the upset of the year than most would have thought possible.

“The other side has pounded us for months and we are still here, right up there with Mitch,” said Grimes manager Hurst.

That may not be enough in the end, but it is enough for now.

Bobby Jindal Trusts Science Except When He Doesn't

Howard Fineman   |   September 16, 2014    3:01 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- America needs a leader to bridge the widening gulf between faith and science, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a devout Roman Catholic with Ivy League-level science training, thinks he can be that person.

As a studious man of immigrant background with the kind of credentials admired by coastal intellectual meritocrats -- Brown, Oxford and McKinsey & Company -- the Republican governor, at least on paper, has a chance to appeal to the middle, should he run for president in 2016. He also has an impressive record as a government bureaucrat and administrator, both in Washington and in Baton Rouge.

Yet given his own deep faith and his roots in the Bible Belt, Jindal's early focus will be on wooing evangelical Christians and others on the cultural right.

If he can solve this Rubik’s Cube of religious belief and scientific trust, he may not only do the country a favor; he might reach the White House.

On Tuesday, Jindal showed his strategy for straddling the politics of the divide -- but also the political risks of doing so -- during an hourlong Q&A with reporters at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, a traditional early stop on the presidential campaign circuit.

Like the experienced tennis player he is, Jindal repeatedly batted away questions about whether he believes the theory of evolution explains the existence of complex life forms on Earth. Pressed for his personal view, Jindal -- who earned a specialized biology degree in an elite pre-med program at Brown University -- declined to give one. He said only that "as a parent I want my children taught the best science." He didn’t say what that "science" was.

He conceded that human activity has something to do with climate change, but declined to agree that there is now widespread scientific consensus on the severity and urgency of the problem.

Because of what he views as a lack of consensus on the gravity of the environmental threat, Jindal felt free to try to turn the science argument against the Obama administration. The president, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies are "science deniers," he argued, because they impose limits on carbon dioxide and other pollutants from "job-creating" businesses without really knowing how well those restrictions work.

He accused the administration of being on the wrong side of the faith divide in this area. "The left loves energy to be expensive and scarce," he said. "It’s almost a religious approach."

Jindal brought with him to the breakfast a detailed energy plan full of specific, thoughtful (and largely deregulatory) proposals.

Speaking about another international threat, he warned that the Ebola virus was a harbinger. "It's not the last potential epidemic in Africa," said Jindal, a former administrator of medical services at the state and federal levels.

On many other science and education issues, the governor also tries to straddle the partisan divide.

He favors a human life amendment to define the legal existence of a "person" at the moment of conception, but he is also a strong advocate for the cheap and wide distribution of contraceptives.

He refused to criticize his "friend" Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynast who said the other day that a Bible-based monogamous marriage of man and woman is the best way to end diseases like AIDS.

After initially supporting the Common Core attempt to write national education standards, the governor now opposes the project.

Jindal takes the latter stance in the name of greater "local control" of education -- which would presumably allow Louisiana schools to teach his version of acceptable "science."

Iowa Probe: A Ditch For Mitch?

Howard Fineman   |   August 30, 2014    1:22 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The five words a senator least likes to hear are not “you have lost the election.” They are “the federal investigation is ongoing.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky might have a reason to be concerned that the second sentence could lead to him hearing the first.

On Wednesday, a federal investigation in Iowa forced a state senator there to plead guilty to obstruction of justice charges stemming from $73,000 in bribes he admitted taking from Rep. Ron Paul's campaign in 2012.

A key figure in that 2012 Ron Paul campaign (and the 2008 Ron Paul campaign as well) was Jesse Benton. He ran the 2010 Kentucky Senate race for Rand Paul -- a fitful McConnell ally. And until yesterday, he was officially (but not recently, in fact) running McConnell’s 2014 race.

Benton has not been accused of wrongdoing. The McConnell campaign issued a terse statement Friday morning dismissing the Iowa probe as unconnected to the senator or his circle, and Benton has denied any knowledge of or involvement in the bribe or efforts to cover it up.

This is probably not the end of the story. The plea was based in part on two sealed documents, and the U.S. Department of Justice has said that the probe is ongoing.

Locked in a close race with Alison Lundergan Grimes, a feisty Democrat less than half his age, 72-year-old McConnell was fighting for his political life even before news broke Friday night that Benton had resigned.

In a textbook attempt to bury the news, Benton issued a statement to an accommodating local news outlet at the 6 p.m. start of a three-day holiday weekend. But within the world of electoral politics, the information was too explosive to stay buried. The McConnell-Grimes race is arguably the most important this year: If McConnell hangs on and Republicans surge elsewhere, he could wind up the new Senate majority leader on election night.

A victory by the 35-year-old Grimes, a young lawyer whose first and only political job is Kentucky secretary of state, would be a sensation -- and could be the deciding vote in keeping the Senate in Democratic hands next year. The race is also likely to be the most expense Senate contest in history.

Privately, McConnell aides said that Benton had been sidelined for months in a reorganization of the campaign after the GOP primary season, and that former McConnell Chief of Staff Josh Holmes has been effectively in charge since.

But the Grimes campaign, adopting the Watergate mantra, quickly demanded to know “what McConnell knew and when he knew it.” And there are a series of questions that inevitably arise, especially since Benton has been a central hub in the political affairs of both the Pauls and McConnell.

Here are some:


  • McConnell is a famously meticulous and wary lawyer-pol. His decision to bring Benton aboard as his campaign manager last year was motivated by the need to build bridges to the libertarian/tea party wing of the GOP. But the Iowa investigation was already underway. Did he or anyone in his camp ask Benton about the 2012 caucus probe before hiring him?



  • Benton, a friendly and confident player in the political and media wars, has been less visible, and visibly in control, in recent months. For example, his most consequential role at the famous Fancy Farm political picnic in Western Kentucky in August seemed to be organizing a cheering section in the audience. McConnell aides in recent months have played down Benton’s role, touting instead the leadership of Holmes, McConnell's former Senate chief of staff. But was Benton really shoved aside because his work in pacifying the tea party was done when the senator easily won the GOP primary against a tea party foe? Or was it because the campaign had reason to be wary of what was going on with the feds in Iowa?
  • Benton has been the key to the tenuous alliance between McConnell and Rand Paul. Will Benton continue to play the role of a key adviser to the junior senator as he ramps up what seems certain to be a presidential bid? Or will Paul decide that he has to distance himself as well? And if Paul does back off, will Benton -- until recently a central figure in the parallel rise of the two Kentuckians -- quietly disappear? Is that really likely?
  • And where does the federal probe go from here? Is Benton’s name in the sealed documents? And even if the McConnell and Paul camps knew nothing about the Iowa probe early on, what, if anything, do they know now?

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Benton did not attend Fancy Farm. He was in the audience for the event.

The War Of Glenn Beck's Worlds

Howard Fineman   |   August 21, 2014    7:51 AM ET

DALLAS -– "I don't expect anybody to believe I've had a change of heart," Glenn Beck told me. "I don't know if I would."

Have you had a change of heart? I asked.

"Half of me would say, 'Hello?!?'" he replied, as if startled that I would even ask a question with such an obvious answer. "The other half of me would say nobody knows what I have been feeling and fighting for inside of myself these last few years."

The conservative talk-show host worships Orson Welles, especially his famously panic-inducing "War of the Worlds" fake-news radio broadcast of 1938. Beck's studios here in suburban Dallas are called Mercury Studios, in homage to Welles' "Mercury Theatre on the Air." Beck's corporate headquarters in New York is on the same spot (though not the same building) as Welles' old workspace.

After spending time with Beck recently, I decided that the Welles obsession is all too apt. To hear him tell it, there is a "War of the Worlds" going on inside Glenn Beck.

The first Beck is the lachrymose but nasty "zoo radio" DJ who once ridiculed a rival whose wife had suffered a miscarriage; who can insult racial and ethnic groups and whole countries; who called President Barack Obama a racist; and who spent many years, by his own admission, too drunk and drug-addled to remember whether he had read his daughters a bedtime story.

The other Beck is a grandpa now, cocooning in a wealthy suburb of the capital of red-state America after abandoning Fox News and Gotham. He is happily married to his second wife, has two young children and is immersed in his family's Mormon faith. He is CEO of a rapidly growing multimedia empire that sells everything from books to movie scripts to high-end blue jeans. And, at least until the next uncontrollable outburst, he is toning down his rhetoric, looking to find solace and answers in the personal rather than the political, and amping up his operation's charity wing, Mercury One.

He insists, on and off the air, that he wants this second Beck to win the war.

He sounds at times like a devotee of the Third Metric. "Money and power can't be the only things," he told me, almost as if playing back the words of Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington. "We have to focus on values."

He said he had been too focused on the first two metrics as he reached the top in New York after decades in the radio business. The high point -– and the turning point -– came a few years ago.

"It was the height of everything," Beck said. "It was the zenith. It was the 'Time 100,' being on the cover of Time, setting records on cable, actually saying something and knowing that the White House was watching you.

"And I don't know how people survive it. I am lucky enough to where I had bottomed out [years before] and lost everything in my life, so I wasn't afraid of that. I was more afraid of losing my soul.

"When you want something, you will do anything for it. And I was just at the point where I was like, 'This is sweet, this is pretty sweet.'

"That's really dangerous."

Beck insisted his political and social views -– at root apocalyptic, xenophobic and conspiratorial -– have not changed one whit. He sees "progressives" as the diabolical vanguard of a dictatorial world government and global economic collapse as imminent. He has warned since the 1990s about the rise of a militant Islamist caliphate, a prediction that suddenly doesn't seem quite so fanciful.

You don't have to be a cynic to wonder whether his "change of heart" has anything to do with his desire to convince more of the nation's skittish, conflict-averse cable operators to carry his video-streaming TV channel, The Blaze -- as in Moses and the burning bush. (His channel is on just nine of the top 25 cable systems.)

Beck hasn't really given up on money or power. He makes $20 million a year from his syndicated radio show alone. Forbes magazine recently estimated his annual income from all his enterprises at $90 million. As for politics, he has made an informal alliance with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. After my interview with him, Beck spent the next hour in a one-on-one sit-down with the Republican senator's influential father, Rafael Cruz.

And, of course, Beck's self-revelations should be treated cautiously. His business model requires him to put himself on the couch in front of a national audience as he reacts to the news. He has been talking about his own struggles for years.

Still, there is evidence that something is going on with Glenn Beck, who turned 50 this year. "He is mellowing a bit," said one friend in the media business in New York. "The reasons why, I don't know."

The border issue is one example. Beck took heat from fellow conservatives for his decision to distribute large amounts of relief supplies through churches and other organizations in McAllen, Texas, to undocumented children caught at the southern border. Sen. Cruz was at his side.

Beck's view is that the law says they should not have been admitted and ultimately should not stay. But in the meantime he explains his response in personal terms.

"I don't understand those who cannot see the plight of children," he said. "People come here because we have the rule of law, but no one wants their kids to grow up in a society that doesn't understand justice and mercy."

So far, Beck is the conservative dog that hasn't barked about the mess in Ferguson, Missouri. The likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity keep raising the decibels on their criticism of protesters in the city and their defense of the police. Limbaugh derisively refers to Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by one officer, as the "Gentle Giant."

But Beck has limited himself to anodyne pleas for peace and calm. A libertarian as much as a conservative, he may be as shocked by the police excesses as some liberal critics with whom he rarely agrees.

On Tuesday, he added this soothing but vague comment to his Facebook page: "Pray for our nation. More than half of the nation isn't even paying attention to what happened in Ferguson. How many friends do you have that have asked, 'What is happening exactly in Ferguson?' Pray that our friends begin to care enough about their freedom that they begin to notice the chaos around them."

Beck credits both the discipline and freedom of Mormonism with helping him. He said he no longer attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, relying instead on the supportive environment of the church, where he teaches Sunday school and takes on other assignments.

"You know in my faith you don't volunteer," he said proudly. "If you volunteer for something, you aren't going to get it. You are usually assigned the thing you definitely don't want to do."

In his case, that means teaching a class with several students from liberal families. "They hate my guts," he said with a laugh, "and 15-year-olds are intense. So it keeps me humble. It keeps me sharp. It keeps me rooted in reality."

He said he yearns to get away, really away. He makes it sound like a religious retreat.

"I've been looking for a way. How do I just go and have my 40 days in the desert and be quiet? Just to not churn everything.

"It would be profoundly helpful. Everybody's life is an aircraft carrier. How do you keep everything going and yet make that turn while you are still not sure where you are headed? It is incredibly difficult."

Beck seems to have found a measure of peace living outside New York City, where he had wanted to be a star ever since, at the age of 8, he heard a recording of famous radio broadcasts from Manhattan's fabled studios.

Now he owns a grand home in a neighborhood full of people who, unlike most New Yorkers he has met, aren't antagonistic to him.

"I enjoyed New York a lot more than New York enjoyed me," he said with a rueful smile.

"I had wanted to live there since I was a kid. When [my wife] would be gone, I would open up the drapes and I would sleep with the windows and curtains open so I could see the skyline of New York. And sometimes I would sit and read for an hour and just look at the skyline."

That was the old Beck. The guy who says he is trying to be the better Beck lives in the heart of Texas.

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Bill Clinton Launches Charm Offensive For Alison Lundergan Grimes In Coal Country

Howard Fineman   |   August 4, 2014    1:22 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's a good thing for embattled Democrats here in Kentucky that Bill Clinton loves to play golf.

Because he does, and because his foundation supports wellness programs, the Professional Golfers' Association is giving him an award at the all-star PGA tournament that begins in Louisville this week at the Valhalla Golf Club.

When the award was announced last month, Clinton called the U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and volunteered to do an event.

So on Wednesday, the former president and 35-year-old Grimes will travel to the town of Hazard, in the hard-hit Eastern Kentucky coalfields, to explain why she -- and not 72-year-old incumbent GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell -- is a friend of coal. Clinton and Grimes will talk about how to spur the economy in Southern Appalachia, and how to revive, but also move beyond, its carbon-based industries. Along with the substantive discussion, Clinton will "bubba it up," predicts Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. "He is the best there is."

Kentuckians can expect to see Clinton in Grimes' TV spots, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst told The Huffington Post. And the campaign expects the former president to be back in person in the fall, perhaps more than once.

As far as Democrats in Kentucky are concerned, Bill Clinton is still president, and Hillary Clinton soon will follow him in the office. Two words Democrats rarely utter voluntarily here, especially in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky: "Barack Obama."

Grimes won't win the coalfield counties of Eastern Kentucky, but she also can't afford to be blown out there -- and coal is key.

McConnell's scorched-earth approach to legislating has hampered his ability to reach bipartisan deals on behalf of "clean coal" and other technologies, and that has been one factor in the decline of coal-mining jobs in the state.

But the GOP, led by McConnell in Kentucky and in Washington, has spent millions depicting D.C. Democrats, especially Sen. Harry Reid and Obama, as remorseless Big Brother environmentalists out to destroy the mountain way of life.

That's one reason why the president's approval rating in the state is in the low 30s, about 10 points below his dismal national mark. And because most Democrats in the state don't rush to defend him, Republicans have a free-fire zone in which to attack the president, and potentially to drive his rating down further.

McConnell's strategy as he seeks a sixth term is to overlay Obama onto Grimes to create a single terrifying image.

"That's their entire strategy, and they will tell any lie they can to support it," Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear told The Huffington Post.

McConnell's campaign manager, Josh Holmes, put it another way.

"President Obama is unpopular here. If Grimes gets to Washington, she'll by definition be part of the party of the president and Harry Reid," he said. "That's the simple fact."

That's where Clinton comes in. The former president is a longtime political associate and friend of the Lundergan family. Clinton was among those who initially encouraged Grimes to run for Senate, and her father was once state party chair and an early Clinton supporter. Grimes is running, in essence, as a Clinton Democrat: pro-business, culturally cautious, intimate with voters, but practical rather than ideological.

Clinton has kept close ties to and remains very popular in the state; a popularity his wife, Hillary, also enjoys. Democrats here are convinced that, should she run for president in 2016, she could be the first Democrat to carry Kentucky since her husband did it twice in the '90s.

"She'd extend the presidential playing field in interesting ways," said Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, speaking of Hillary. "And she can win here."

If Grimes pulls off the upset, one is sure to see her in the early photo ops standing alongside not only Bill Clinton, but his wife, too.

Grimes Is As Tough As McConnell -- And As Nasty

Howard Fineman   |   August 3, 2014    7:21 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -– It’s finally dawning on people, perhaps including some Republicans here in Kentucky, that the 35-year-old woman tearing into Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) day after day may be as tough and nasty as the 72-year-old five-term incumbent she is trying to oust.

At the Fancy Farm picnic this past weekend, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) clearly bested McConnell in the most elemental of political confrontations: back-to-back speeches in front of a thousand cheering and jeering partisan spectators.

She essentially called McConnell too old to serve, saying she was in Fancy Farm for his “retirement party." She also painted him as a hard-hearted cynic, a selfish man who had enriched himself at public expense, and the symbol and cause of all that's wrong with politics in the country and in Washington, D.C.

And she did it by pointing in his direction and occasionally turning to gaze at him directly. She seemed confident and in control in what was the most important public performance of her career so far.

She also challenged him to meet her in two debates. So far he has agreed to none. She said that she would be at the designated sites, whether or not he showed up, and that no one would need “bloodhounds to find me.” That was a reference to the classic 1984 attack ads that brought McConnell his first victory over a Democratic incumbent who had missed some votes in the Senate; the ads featured the dogs being used to look for the "missing" opponent.

Grimes is the middle of five daughters in an intensely political family, a fact that's important for understanding where she's coming from and what drives her. To say she's competitive is an understatement. She gives off the aura of someone willing to do whatever it takes, but that's not necessarily a compliment -- except to Democrats desperate to unseat McConnell after his 30 years in the Senate.

Grimes smiled widely but rather coldly as she stood at the podium at Fancy Farm, and as she pointed at McConnell, she seemed at times like she would have banished him from the stage if she could have.

Her campaign strategy boils down to one essential point: destroying McConnell if she can. Her own position papers and proposals exist, and are standard and unremarkable for a Democrat: an increase in the minimum wage, pay equity for women, organizing rights for unions, and so on. But her campaign team is looking at numbers that tell them that once they get her “positives” and her name recognition as high as possible, the last months of the race will be devoted to attacking McConnell as old, out of touch, morally bankrupt and destined for the slag heap.

Some journalists, including this one, have needled her for sticking religiously to her rather narrow script, but she and her handlers aren’t the least bit apologetic about the strategy. They also point out, rightly, that McConnell very rarely answers questions or gives interviews on the campaign trail, so why should they? They think that McConnell, whose “negative” ratings continue to float well above 50 percent, is simply too unpopular to get re-elected -– even in a red state that voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

And to pursue that strategy requires the remorseless approach Grimes is taking.

Even her “positive” TV spots contain tough comparisons with McConnell. Her team is now saving some of its money for an all-out negative assault come the fall. She plans to continue and even increase the pace of her travel around the state, not only to meet more voters face to face, but also to contrast her youth, vigor and camera-friendliness with the demeanor of her senior citizen foe.

Grimes' cheerfully confident and acidic antagonism has to remind McConnell of someone: himself.

Kentucky's GOP Bromance Deepens, Even Without True Love

Howard Fineman   |   August 2, 2014    3:07 PM ET

MAYFIELD, Ky. -- Sen. Rand Paul arrived at the Graves County GOP breakfast here Saturday all but incognito, without an entourage, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and his usual bemused look.

He came to praise Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, not to bury him, as he had once tried to do. But Paul wasn't going to make a big deal of it.

McConnell's challenger in this year's election, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, was utterly unacceptable, Paul told the overflow crowd in a high school cafeteria. The reason was simplicity itself: She's a Democrat and would vote to keep Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has said coal makes people sick, as the Senate majority leader.

"I don't know how any Kentuckian could consider voting for Ms. Grimes," the Republican senator said.

The rest of the sales job was functional.

McConnell, Paul said, was a Senate GOP leader who kept his caucus unified against Obamacare and forced a vote on a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget. McConnell, Paul said, would be an even better leader if, as is possible, Republicans win a net of six Senate seats in November.

"I'm a really loud voice, my critics would say a loudmouth," he said. "I try to bring attention to things." McConnell was the perfect ally, he said, "because he knows how to get things done."

McConnell, for his part, expressed support, sort of, for Paul's likely run for the presidency in 2016.

"If he chose to run, he would be the most creditable candidate for president since Henry Clay," McConnell told the crowd.

That sounded nice enough, though McConnell didn't mention that Clay, the legendary Kentucky lawmaker and "Great Compromiser," never made it all the way to the White House.

The sometimes passive-aggressive bromance between Rand and Mitch just keeps getting more interesting and influential. It now operates on two levels and soon may add a third.

The first is in Kentucky. As he faces a tough race for re-election, McConnell needs all the help he can get, and Paul has been helpful. Recent polls show that, after having to defeat a tea party challenger in the GOP primary, McConnell has solidified his Republican base. Paul not only endorsed McConnell over the challenger, but has since worked to heal whatever party wounds there were.

The second level is in the Senate. The two have developed an inside-outside alliance that is mutually beneficial, guarding McConnell's right flank and giving Paul access to the inner workings of leadership that he would not otherwise have.

If McConnell becomes Senate majority leader, the home-state alliance will be even more significant as Paul gears up his presidential campaign.

Still, it's far from clear whether McConnell will go all out for Paul or use his new position -- if he obtains it -- as an excuse to stay out of the 2016 GOP fray.

On the dais here in Mayfield, they shook hands and smiled the correct smiles. But they didn't sit next to each other and didn't seem that eager to talk until the next time they really need to.

In his speech at the annual Fancy Farm political "picnic" later in the day, McConnell argued that his ascension to majority leader would lead to change in Washington, not more of the gridlocked status quo.

"Send this proud Kentuckian to lead the new Senate and we'll take the country back. ... With your help, Kentucky will lead America."

Paul clapped at that.

This story has been updated with Mitch McConnell's remarks at Fancy Farm.

Mitch McConnell Is The Least Of It For Alison Lundergan Grimes

Howard Fineman   |   August 1, 2014   11:07 PM ET

PADUCAH, Ky. -- Two key features of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ drive to oust GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell were on display here Friday within a few hours of each other.

In an abandoned gas station on the outskirts of town, Grimes opened a local headquarters and drew an impressively large and pumped-up crowd of some 300 supporters who like her -- but like even more that she may “Ditch Mitch.”

Later, seated as a tiny dining table in her campaign bus, she carefully answered or swatted away our questions about immigration, the Middle East, marijuana and tax policy in a disciplined -- and successful -- effort to make no news, and to guard her political flanks in every direction.

A Democratic electorate that loathes McConnell, a diligent ground game and rigorous message discipline have combined to keep the 35-year-old Kentucky secretary of state neck-and-neck with McConnell since she announced her challenge a year ago.

What now? After talking with strategists, organizers, elected officials and observers here in Kentucky and elsewhere, I’ve compiled a list of challenges that Grimes confronts:

Stay Close. Democratic campaign bundlers and mega-rich independent donors around the country have gotten more interested in the Kentucky race, wondering if it's the real deal.

As summer in the Hamptons and the Vineyard turns to fall, Grimes needs polls to stay within the margin of error as these big shots make their late calls about where to invest. Many would be happy enough with McConnell. But if Grimes is to pull off the big upset that saves the Senate for the Democrats, these donors would want in on that action -- to assure their access to the Senate either way.

Go Deeper. Grimes, a lawyer from a deeply political family, is smart and well informed, but her campaign strategy isn’t designed to show what she knows. Instead, she is trying to take advantage of her mere two years in public office, which gives McConnell little of substance to attack. She sticks to her effective talking points -- such as the need to raise the minimum wage and ensure pay equity for women –- but speaks little about most everything else.

It’s not clear that this will work all the way to Election Day on Nov. 4. Three months is an eternity in politics. Grimes will need deeper, more specific proposals to feed into the discussion. And, after all, she would become a key figure if she knocks of McConnell -- and the Senate at least used to deal with serious national and global matters.

Louisville and Lexington. There are many Kentuckys; it is a varied and fractured mix of regions, cultures and even topography. But it’s clear which Kentucky is most important to Grimes: The urban one, especially in Louisville (Jefferson County) and Lexington (Fayette County). Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville is the state’s lone Democratic member of the House of Representatives; Lexington is home to the University of Kentucky. Both have the state's only substantial African-American populations. “She’s GOT to get every single vote she can out of Louisville and Lexington to have a real chance,” said Kentucky's Democratic attorney general, Jack Conway, who is running for governor next year.

Women. Grimes can sound like a Southern fried suffragette, and she is aiming her main appeal directly at women voters in rural as well as urban areas. She attacks McConnell ceaselessly for his votes against pay equity and violence-against-women measures. A group called Emerge Kentucky has worked hard to recruit women for office, and provides a network for candidates such as Grimes. The trick now is getting every female who “leans Grimes” to the polls or to an absentee ballot. That is sometimes hard in a culturally traditional state, where white men trend strongly toward the GOP, while a fair number of their wives are leaning the other way. “Especially among seniors, it’s hard to separate the wives from the husbands,” said Ray McLennan, a retired IRS agent from Paducah who has spent years studying the data.

Number Crunching. Democrats still hold a huge registration advantage in Kentucky. It is said -- and it may well be true -- that if Grimes can turn out every last voter who dislikes McConnell and at least tolerates her, she will win.

That’s where numbers come in. Like everything else, turning out the vote has been transformed with algorithms and big data. Grimes said she'll have state of the art in both, and will be able to concentrate staff and volunteers in precisely the right places in the commonwealth. They need to be right, and as effective as any Democratic effort in the state since the legendary Wendell Ford.

Coal. McConnell’s guilt-by-association attacks focus on Grimes’ alleged ties to President Barack Obama, who is widely disliked in the state, and even to the otherwise fairly obscure Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Both are seen in Kentucky as “enemies” of the coal industry because of their support for limits on carbon emissions and other environmental measures. Grimes has tried to outflank McConnell by being a strong advocate of “clean coal” technology, and by pointing out that McConnell’s 30 years in Washington hasn’t stopped the EPA from imposing new rules.

But she may have to do more to minimize her losses in the coal regions of Eastern and Western Kentucky. She is campaigning in Appalachia next week with the ever-popular (especially in Kentucky) former President Bill Clinton. But as charming as he is, and as capable as he is of, as one local pol said, “bubba'ing it up,” that won’t be enough. Grimes will have to demonstrate a better understanding of, and concern for, the tenuous state of industries and populations that rely on cheap electricity rates.

Ride The Local Races. In presidential years, Democrats' huge voter registration advantage doesn’t seem to matter. Clinton was the last Democrat to win here, in 1996, and Obama lost in 2012 by 18 points. But “off years,” officials in the state’s 120 -- yes 120 -- counties all are on the ballot, along with state legislators. The Kentucky House, the last legislative body in the South (not counting West Virginia) to be held by Democrats, is under threat. The Grimes campaign hopes to ride that concern and the other local races.

Be Ready. So far, Grimes has shown that she can run as nasty a campaign as McConnell can -- a compliment of sorts in these times. But the boys from opposition research and the big outside conservative money will spend whatever they can to get control of the U.S. Senate. “We’ve got to be ready come Labor Day,” said an adviser to the Grimes campaign. “That’s when they stick the corncob up your butt.”

The Wrestling Match Called Congress Moves To A Picnic Shed In Kentucky

Howard Fineman   |   July 31, 2014    9:52 PM ET

PADUCAH, Ky. –- On paper, the U.S. Senate race here shouldn’t be a race at all.

The incumbent is Sen. Mitch McConnell, 72, a five-term powerhouse and the Republican leader in the Senate. He is in line to become majority leader if, as is possible, the GOP picks up a net of six seats in November’s elections.

His challenger is a relatively inexperienced woman not even half his age, running in a state with a Democratic governor, but also five GOP congressmen (out of a total six), two GOP senators (Rand Paul is the other) and a recent record of voting –- overwhelmingly –- for GOP presidential candidates.

Yet Alison Lundergan Grimes is in the race –- trailing by less than the polls' margin of error. She has plenty of money, a first-rate campaign team and a folksy, combative personality perfectly suited to politics in the Bluegrass.

“A year ago, who would have believed that we would still be neck-and-neck with Mitch?” said Jonathan Hurst of the Grimes campaign.

The question now is whether the race will stay that way as it enters the campaign equivalent of the stretch run at Churchill Downs.

“We have built a modest but real lead and have the advantage on nearly every front as we close for the last 95 days,” said Jesse Benton, a close campaign adviser to McConnell.

Either way, Kentucky is the place and the race that may decide who controls the Senate -– and the atmosphere and the accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s last years in office. Calculations vary, but Democrats desperately need to pick up a Senate seat somewhere, and Grimes still has a real chance of doing it here.

This weekend marks what amounts to the start of the race to the wire –- and as such, it is now the epicenter of politics.

It’s an old-fashioned stump-speaking picnic called Fancy Farm.

Now that Congress is leaving D.C. for a month-long, dishonestly named “district work period,” American politics can lose the pretense of real legislating (there has been very little of it in Washington) and get down to some real eye-gouging.

This year -– any year, really -- there is no better place for that than Kentucky, a feud-prone border state and ancient argued-over land the Cherokees called the “Dark and Bloody Ground.”

And in an election year, there is no better place for political arguing than an annual picnic here in the rural “Southern” -– that is, western -– part of the state, near Paducah. Which means the Fancy Farm picnic, held on the grounds of the St. Jerome Catholic Church in Graves County.

Joining Gov. Steve Beshear, Paul and other pols, McConnell and Grimes will attempt to speak above the din of a raucous crowd in an open-sided farm shed the size of a basketball court.

Fancy Farm is electioneering at its most basic: a mix of down-home handshaking, crowd-working and attempts to speak over the shouts and rhythmic chants of supporters and foes. The event is a blend of the House of Commons, a tobacco auction and the desperate din of a high school basketball game.

If you’re a candidate, the objective is to show your organizational clout, shake as many hands as possible, and keep a smile on your face at all times, in camera range and out.

This year, it’s also about dealing with the national media, which is descending on Kentucky in general and Fancy Farm in particular. They are drawn this year by the surprisingly close Senate race.

McConnell is counting on Kentuckians’ dislike of Obama –- the president’s approval is 28 percent in the state. He is targeting as well Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose dour and resentful personality matches McConnell’s, and who presides over a U.S. Senate that, thanks in large part to GOP tactics, is as dysfunctional as any since the days of the Civil War.

Reid is a leader in a national Democratic Party that is committed generally to reducing carbon emissions and therefore global reliance on coal -– a dwindling yet still popular and important industry in the far eastern and western parts of the state. Grimes has tried to radically distance herself from national Democrats on the issue –- to the point of claiming to be a better proponent of the coal industry than her foe has been.

Recent polls show that McConnell has solidified his base among Republicans after a nasty primary battle with a tea party challenger. As a result, the most recent Bluegrass Poll shows him with a slim 2-point overall lead after a year trailing Grimes in the average of all polls. Now, his side is attacking Grimes as an untested lightweight.

But McConnell is hardly home free.

A product of politics in the state’s lone big city, Louisville, he has never been wildly popular statewide. He won only one of his five Senate races by what would be regarded as a landslide.

Incumbents of any stripe are in danger this year, even Republicans in red states. The job ratings of Congress are at historic lows.

Nor is it always clear just how much “pork” McConnell has been able to haul back to Kentucky, especially since earmarks have been cut and the coal-based Kentucky economy has suffered despite his efforts in Congress.

Grimes for the most part has run a cautious campaign, incessantly touting a “jobs agenda,” her Kentucky cultural roots as a horsewoman and target shooter, and ridiculing McConnell as out of touch, ineffective and hard-hearted.

The McConnell camp has cautiously gained confidence in the last few weeks.

“Mitch has solidified his Republican base,” said Benton. “His image is improving as we remind people that he is a great advocate for Kentucky. The president is deeply unpopular, particularly with conservative Democrats.”

Grimes will be fully competitive in TV advertising in the final months, and is pounding away on issues that most directly affect women, such as health care, pay equity and abortion. But she is going to need the best get-out-the-vote ground game the state has seen in recent decades if she is to pull the upset.

“The Republicans have spent $30 million and they haven’t knocked us out,” said Hurst, “and we are going to have that ground game. It’s going to be like nothing you have seen.”

It begins this weekend at Fancy Farm.