Fancy Farm, Ky. — It’s not often that someone who’s been in Washington for 30 years calls himself the candidate of change, but that’s what Mitch McConnell did this past weekend, when the country’s most high-profile Senate race descended on a tiny town in western Kentucky.
On Saturday, in an open shed on a stage surrounded by a white picket fence, the Republican incumbent squared off for the first time with his Democratic challenger, 35-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, at the annual Fancy Farm picnic. The event, which serves as the unofficial kickoff of the fall election season, is western Kentucky’s version of a political convention: Formalities are tossed aside. The crowd heckles, boos, and cheers the political candidates who take the stage, as pork and mutton are barbecued nearby. Reaching the picnic, which is held on the grounds of a Catholic church, requires snaking through miles of cornfields that blanket western Kentucky. This year, political signs for both candidates lined the roads as far as two miles away.
In a nearby shed, another group of attendees escaped the sweltering heat to play bingo. Others milled around, eating barbecue and playing carnival games. Though there was no official attendance tally, event organizers said they expected to see about 20,000 people pass through.
McConnell and Grimes were the big draw. On Saturday, they brought the same message: It’s time for change. McConnell promised it in the form of a Republican-led Senate that would serve as a bulwark against the Obama administration. Dressed in khakis and a pale-yellow dress shirt, he told the raucous crowd, “There’s only one way, just one way to change America in 2014; there’s only one way to begin to go in a different direction. That’s to change the Senate and make me the leader of a new majority to take America in a different direction.” Grimes, he said, is merely “a new face for the status quo.”
McConnell and Grimes are a study in contrasts. She is young, pretty, and charismatic. He, at 72, has been in Washington nearly as long as she has been alive, was once described as having “the charisma of an oyster,” and often has the look of a disapproving father.
That’s the look he was wearing as Grimes, clad in a navy dress and high heels, strode to the lectern and welcomed the crowd to “Senator McConnell’s retirement party.” Her message is simple: McConnell has been in Washington for three decades and has lost sight of his constituents in Kentucky. “Thanks to you,” she said of him, “D.C. stands for ‘doesn’t care.’”
Their contest will be a referendum on whether President Obama, whose approval rating hovers around 30 percent in the Bluegrass State, and with whom McConnell is trying to saddle Grimes, is more unpopular than his Republican opponents and the Washington establishment more broadly.
Grimes has used her youth and gender as battering rams in the campaign, and Saturday was no exception. “Thirty-five is my age,” she said. “That’s also Mitch McConnell’s approval rating.” She cast him as an opponent of gender equality, arguing that “only one of us believes women deserve equal pay for equal work.” She compare him to a character from the television show Mad Men and warned that the women of Kentucky are set to toss him out of office.
McConnell was elected in 1984. He defeated a popular Democrat in an upset victory that year (Roger Ailes was his political consultant) and has built a reputation as a politician of impeccable tactical skill and a vicious campaigner. President George W. Bush nicknamed him “Landslide McConnell,” a nod to the runaway reelection victories he won in 1996 and 2002, both by double digits.
This year is different. The latest polls show him with a narrow lead on Grimes, a political neophyte who had served less than two years as Kentucky’s secretary of state when she announced her Senate candidacy last summer.
He says the competitiveness reflects the perils of being part of the political leadership of either party in the modern era. When former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004, he was the first member of the Senate leadership to lose a bid for reelection in over a half century. “Becoming majority leader,” McConnell tells me, “changed my political life.” In 2002, he spent $6.5 million and was reelected by nearly 30 points, the largest majority by a Republican in Kentucky history; in the first race after he was elected majority leader, he spent $21 million and won by five points.
McConnell says he’s not flustered by the new paradigm, but “sort of philosophical about it.”
The minority leader’s weaknesses extend beyond his position in the GOP leadership: He has consistently polled below 50 percent, a dangerous place for any incumbent, but particularly for him in Kentucky, where most voters have a settled opinion of him. Grimes, by contrast, is a relative unknown. “She comes to the race with no voting record of any kind, which is a real boon,” says Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Though the race is tight, Grimes is not without weaknesses. For one, she is hard-pressed to respond to questions about policy, and the whispers behind the scenes this weekend were that it’s because she doesn’t know very much. She has refused to stake out positions on the two most divisive political issues of the campaign season, illegal immigration and Obamacare. And for all her defense of women’s rights, she fled from reporters in the spring when asked for her thoughts on a former state representative and donor to her campaign who was accused of sexual harassment.
Her father, Jerry Lundergan, a two-time chairman of the Democratic party in Kentucky, may also prove a liability. It is arguable that without him, her candidacy would have been an impossibility. He is omnipresent on the campaign trail, and his deep ties in the Democratic party have already helped bring Bill Clinton and Joe Biden to the state for campaign events. Clinton arrives in Kentucky again this week. According to Cross, Lundergan is “effectively serving as chairman” of the Grimes campaign.
But Lundergan has not always sounded notes of women’s empowerment. At Grimes’s splashy campaign rollout, which took place at a Lundergan-owned venue, he declared, “That’s what daddies do for their little girls.” He also owns with his brothers the Hugh Jass Burgers restaurant on the campus of the University of Kentucky. Some of the menu items make reference to the women in his family: “Charlotte’s Rack” is a rack of ribs named after Lundergan’s wife, Charlotte, and “Abby’s Hugh Jass” is a hamburger named after his daughter, Abigail. Another menu item: “the Tiny Tush,” a smaller burger.
The race will be a test of how strong anti-incumbent sentiment has grown. Neither candidate is coy about the stakes. Asked whether the GOP has any chance of retaking the Senate if he doesn’t win in Kentucky, McConnell is direct: “No,” he says.
— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.