LOUISVILLE -- As far as most Kentucky Democrats are concerned, the head of the national Democratic Party isn’t President Barack Obama, though they like him enough.
It's Bill Clinton, the former president from Arkansas who is locally (and often nationally) known fondly as “The Big Dog.” He's not running for Senate in Kentucky, but he might as well be.
Bill Clinton is the last Democrat to have won a presidential race here, in 1992 and 1996. His down-home style and moderate politics make him as much a product of Kentucky central casting as of his home state. He's stayed in close touch with Kentucky locals, too.
And it is Clinton who is leading a drive to boost the party -- and his wife Hillary’s White House chances -- by replacing five-term Republican Senate incumbent Mitch McConnell with a close Clinton protégé, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
No one in Kentucky wonders why the state's junior Republican senator, Rand Paul, has been taking wild and crude swings at Bill Clinton's all too well-known personal history. It's because he's playing attack dog in the Bluegrass on McConnell's behalf against the man who stands behind -- and in front of -- the Grimes candidacy.
The former president will headline a Grimes fundraiser here Tuesday, an event being treated not only as a Kentucky story, but also as the launch of Clinton's 2014 effort to pile up as many chits as he can in aid of Hillary's likely run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
That effort began last year, next door to Kentucky in the presidential swing state of Virginia. There, Bill Clinton was both a private and public advocate for the successful gubernatorial race of one of his closest friends, and most prolific fundraisers, Terry McAuliffe.
To no one's surprise, McAuliffe declared last weekend that he would eagerly support Hillary, should she run. Having him in position in a key state -- the Ohio of the South -- will matter both in the nomination race and in the general election in 2016.
The former president is assembling a busy national schedule of fundraising and campaigning on behalf of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates. The aim is not only to help keep the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands, but also to make grassroots contacts and win commitments in red states where Hillary could amass delegates in out-of-the-way primaries and caucuses the way then-Sen. Obama did in 2008.
For the Clintons, an Alison Lundergan Grimes candidacy is a win-win-win.
She is the 35-year-old daughter of another of Bill and Hillary’s closest friends, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan. The Clintons have known Alison since she was a child, and the political and personal affection is real and longstanding.
If Grimes pulls the upset -- she is neck-and-neck with the unpopular McConnell in most state polls -- she’ll become a key Hillary ally in the Bluegrass State and the Senate. Just as important, Grimes could serve as an appealing national surrogate among a younger generation of women who don’t know the Clinton story.
But even if Grimes loses, the Clintons will have refreshed contacts and won points that will help them collect delegates in the nomination race in 2016.
The Grimes-Clinton partnership is of decades' standing: Jerry Lundergan, who owns a lucrative, Lexington-based catering business, was one of Bill Clinton’s first key fundraisers outside of Arkansas as early as the 1980s. But the current partnership began in 2013.
A year ago this week, Clinton was in Owensboro, Ky., about to leave town after a charity dinner. An important -- but, at the time, obscure -- guest arrived by private plane for a late-night meeting.
It was Grimes. She, her father and Clinton left after the event and met for an extended discussion of her possible run. The former president was encouraging, Jerry Lundergan later said.
At the time, California-born, Kentucky-bred actress, writer and activist Ashley Judd was seriously considering the race, and according to some sources had decided to jump in.
Judd had made her case to the revered patriarch of the party, retired Sen. Wendell Ford, who lives in Owensboro and whose charity event Clinton had come to town to headline.
Ford was mildly supportive of Judd, saying later that he told her to make her own judgment about the race, but sources said that he was worried that her movie and TV career might upset culturally conservative Kentuckians.
It's not known if Ford and Clinton ever talked about Judd or whom the Democrats should put up to run in the tough race. However, Judd eventually announced that she didn't plan to run, saying she wanted to focus on her family. Instead, Grimes -- married, from a devout Catholic family, and born to politics -- did.