Clinton banks some election capital

Her husband’s popularity explains why many of Hillary Clinton’s party colleagues describe themselves to midterm voters as Clinton rather than Obama Democrats. That should help her if she runs for the White House


Around the corner from Whiskey Row, the bricked-up, block-long stretch that was once home to Louisville’s bourbon industry in Kentucky, the Hillbilly Tea restaurant serves smoked catfish, bourbon bread pudding and other mouth-watering traditional Southern food.

“He’s like the Mick Jagger of the Senate – he’s going to die doing it,” says Katie of Republican senator Mitch McConnell (72), the party’s Senate leader who is seeking another six-year term, his sixth, in Congress in the November 4th mid-term elections.

Like many Democrats, she is excited by the arrival of Hillary Clinton night in this blue pocket of a state coloured a dark red by Republicans in the last four presidential elections. Clinton has come to town to campaign for McConnell’s Democrat rival, Alison Lundergan Grimes (35), Kentucky’s secretary of state.

Katie hopes Hillary will be bringing her husband Bill. “We all still love him around here,” she said. The former Arkansas governor won Kentucky in his 1992 and 1996 presidential election victories. He was the last Democrat to win here in a national election and has campaigned for Grimes twice, in February and August.

His popularity here is why Grimes has characterised herself as a Clinton rather than an Obama Democrat. Like many other Democrats seeking election next month, she has distanced herself from a president whose unpopularity reached a new low this week. A poll from the Washington Post and ABC News this week ranked Obama’s job approval rating at 40 per cent, the same popularity George W Bush enjoyed during his second-term mid-term elections in 2006 when Democrats won the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Republicans need to pick up six seats to win a majority in the Senate and outright control of Congress as they are expected to retain their majority in the House. McConnell’s re-election battle with Grimes has attracted national attention in the US because, should he and the Republicans win, the Kentuckian will be the next Senate majority leader and the new face of obstruction blocking Obama on Capitol Hill.

This race is close. Polls in the past month have, on average, put McConnell three points clear of Grimes, according to the electoral website Real Clear Politics, although a local Bluegrass Poll last week has Grimes at 46 per cent to McConnell’s 44 per cent, a six-point swing in six weeks.

This has been a bad week for Grimes. In the only televised debate between the candidates on Monday, she squirmed as she refused to answer whether she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, citing her “constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box”.

She robbed McConnell’s campaign of a video soundbite that would have been replayed over and over in one of the many attack ads that have dominated this and many other Senate races this year. The clip of her awkwardly flailing on a simple question was almost as damaging.

“It is a lose-lose question for her no matter how she answers,” said Stephen Voss, professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “She is probably better off just taking the cost of refusing.”

Grimes has cast McConnell as a multimillionaire politician who has looked after his own interests during his 30 years in Washington rather those of Kentuckians, playing to the anti-Congress feeling at a time when Capitol Hill politics is even more unpopular than the president.

Showing her progressive credentials, she has played to the left, attacking McConnell for taking contributions from big donors such as the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. She has defended the low-paid, students shouldering heavy loans and women’s rights.

McConnell has appeared weak on certain issues. Democrats have ridiculed him for saying in an interview that he couldn’t say whether climate change was man-made because he’s “not a scientist”.

He has attacked Obamacare, the president’s health insurance scheme, as the worst law in a half century but said during Monday’s debate that it was “fine” to have the state’s healthcare exchange website, without seeming to realise that more than 500,000 Kentuckians had received Obamacare through the website.

While Clinton may have been campaigning for Grimes on Wednesday, the politicians introducing them on stage at the Kentucky International Convention Centre this week couldn’t help but mention a much bigger election race in 2016 at a event that had all the razzamatazz of a presidential campaign rally for Clinton.

“Let me welcome you to the Mitch McConnell retirement party,” Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s state auditor, told more than 4,500 people at the rally. “You know what’s good about a retirement party – when you have the future president of the United States,” he added, boldly linking the former US secretary of state to the White House.

Clinton has repeatedly fudged when asked if she would run for the White House again, saying only that she will announce her decision next year.

This didn’t stop Grimes hinting at the possibility of Clinton, the out-and-out Democratic favourite for 2016, being in the White House as she made her case against another six-year term for McConnell. Rejecting her rival’s attempts to link her to Obama, she said that the Kentucky race was “not about who’s in the White House now”.

“The president has two more years – this is a six-year term. It’s about a senator who will work for the next four years with whoever is in the White House no matter who he or she might be,” she said.

Clinton also painted herself as an opponent of the partisan bickering between Democrats and Republicans that has paralysed Congress. “Do you want politics in Washington, in the Congress, to look the same for the next six years?” a fired-up Clinton asked the Kentucky audience in an energetic address.

Clinton’s appearance on Wednesday was the flashiest campaign event she has appeared at in this election cycle. She and her husband have filled the vacuum left in this election campaign by Obama, who has largely limited himself to appearing at private fundraisers in Democratic strongholds.

Kentucky was another stop on a long itinerary that sees Clinton campaign for candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, crucial states in presidential races, suggesting she is laying the groundwork for her White House run. By helping Democrats in tight election battles with just 17 days until the ballots open, she can expect to call in their support two years later if necessary.

“The business of politics is one of constant reciprocal favours so this is a time for her to put political capital in the bank,” says Michael Cornfield, professor of political management at George Washington University in Washington DC.

Despite her husband’s success here, Clinton is seen as an underdog in Kentucky whose other Republican senator, Rand Paul, is a frontrunner for that party’s nomination in 2016. At a national level, a McConnell victory and a Republican Senate majority may ironically help her presidential designs.

While a Republican-led Congress would not be good Democrats, a contrarian view is that a more partisan Senate led by a conservative McConnell challenging a Democratic president would allow Clinton – in the 2016 race – to appeal to a public frustrated by Washington gridlock.

“Hillary Clinton is a candidate who runs better when she can be a sort of a Joan of Arc tilting against forces that threaten Democratic constituencies,” says Cornfield.

Democrat supporters trail out of the Kentucky convention centre, enthused by Grimes and Clinton. If McConnell is the ageing rocker of the Senate, then Grimes is “the up-and-coming rock star,” says Eric Jones (39) from the east of Kentucky.

Elizabeth Bartholomew (48) from Louisville has doubts about whether Grimes can beat McConnell. “He’s a tough nut to crack.” For her, Clinton was the headline act. “We really came to see Hillary,” she adds. “I think she is our next president, but she’s a Democrat and this is Kentucky – I don’t think we’ll see her coming through here again.”


The Senate race in Kentucky is the most expensive of this year’s midterm elections. The candidates have raised more than $40 million (€30 million), according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent group that tracks campaign financing. Outside money and issue-based advertising push the total spend towards $100 million.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate, raised $4.9 million in the third quarter, compared with $3.1 million raised by the Republican senator Mitch McConnell, according to Charly Norton, a spokeswoman for Grimes. Grimes has $4.4 million on hand to spend in the remaining 17 days of the campaign, compared with McConnell’s $5 million.

Outside groups have spent about $40 million helping McConnell, outspending Grimes by three to one on external funds, Norton says.

McConnell, regarded as a master fundraiser, spent some of the largest sums in a US primary election when he saw off a Republican Tea Party challenger. The Democrats have spent considerable funds in Kentucky in a bid to unseat a top Republican.

“Defeating Mitch McConnell would symbolically be quite a trophy for the Democrats, and Republicans cannot afford to lose this state,” says Stephen Voss, a professor of politics at the University of Kentucky.

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