LOUISVILLE -- When Alison Lundergan Grimes introduced former President Bill Clinton to a crowd of 1,200 Democrats at a recent event in Kentucky, she described him effusively as “a friend, a mentor, an adviser.”
As Grimes looks to energize Democrats in her Senate campaign, Clinton is becoming one of her most potent political weapons.
Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of the country's marquee races, said she hopes to appeal to Kentucky voters much as Clinton did to the nation in 1992, when “the country was ready for a new, fresh southern face.”
“As I look out at this standing-room-only, sold-out crowd, I think it goes without saying that Kentucky is Clinton country,” she boasted.
Clinton made the event in Louisville his first campaign appearance of the 2014 midterm election cycle. His help came as no surprise: Clinton is a longtime friend of Grimes' father. He helped recruit her to run and has promised to do his part to help Grimes win.
“I’m here to tell you, it makes a big difference who wins this election, and Alison Lundergan Grimes should win it, and you’re going to make it happen,” Clinton said.
With Clinton’s call to action, his audience opened their checkbooks: The luncheon brought in a whopping $700,000 for Grimes’ campaign, highlighting the former president’s pull.
After the ballroom had cleared, a reporter asked Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan, when Clinton would return to Kentucky.
“Whenever I call him,” Lundergan answered.
What Lundergan has jokingly called McConnell and Grimes — "Grumpy and Pretty" — offers a peek at the campaign’s message. Grimes’ team senses an opportunity to win voters by presenting McConnell as a tired Washington trope in contrast to Grimes, a young new female face.
In a spate of interviews timed to coincide with Clinton's appearance, Grimes played up those attributes -- as she did at her rally with Clinton, where she walked onstage to the Katy Perry song, “Roar.” If that anthem would be her campaign's theme song, Grimes laughed, McConnell's might be the Beatles standby, “Can't Buy Me Love.”
By most recent measures, the race between McConnell and Grimes is locked in a dead heat. In a Bluegrass Poll published earlier this month, Grimes led McConnell by 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent.
The Grimes campaign’s tone, while positive and increasingly audible, has so far been understated.
McConnell released a television ad re-introducing himself to Kentuckians, but Grimes’ campaign has not yet broadcast its first TV ad.
“They’re not overplaying their hand, and they’re allowing the Republican primary to play out,” said one Democratic strategist.
Indeed, the Republican primary, in which McConnell faces businessman Matt Bevin, has hindered McConnell from focusing his full attention and firepower on Grimes -- giving her time to rally her base.
McConnell's fellow Kentucky Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, though, has recently stepped up as a key attack dog in the campaign, which also allows McConnell to distance himself from negative attacks.
Ahead of Clinton's trip to Kentucky, Paul trained his barbs on the former president and questioned whether Grimes should welcome his support, citing Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky when he was president.
“You know, it concerns me,” Paul said in an interview with NBC. ”If the president of your network had relations with a 20-year-old girl who was there from college, I think the president of your network would be fired. We don’t accept that in the workplace. So if that’s what Bill Clinton did multiple times, really they ought to be concerned about being associated with him.”
But with Grimes and other Democrats betting that Clinton will be a powerful surrogate this election year, Kentucky voters should get used to seeing the former president on the campaign trail.