LOUISVILLE — When former President Bill Clinton traveled to Kentucky on Tuesday to vouch for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, he wasn't shy about admitting that his appearance was, in part, a favor for an old friend.
“I would be here if she was at 5 percent in the polls,” Clinton told a packed hotel ballroom of 1,200 people in Louisville on Tuesday.
Of course, Grimes isn't doing that poorly in the polls. Instead, she is a star Democratic candidate in this midterm election year, who is expected to give Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the fight of his political life.
And Clinton, a longtime family friend who helped recruit Grimes into the race, wasn't in Kentucky for his first campaign trail appearance of the 2014 election cycle merely out of courtesy.
“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.
Clinton, his voice hobbled slightly by a cold, struck a mostly populist tone in a wide-ranging speech that touched on issues including the minimum wage and unemployment -- but veered often, including a brief note of thanks to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, for accepting Medicaid funding set aside by the federal health care law.
To the crowd of Democrats who paid a minimum of $100 to eat a mediocre lunch in proximity to the former president, it didn’t much matter what Clinton said.
As Grimes put it in her speech, “As I look out at this standing-room-only sold-out crowd, I think it goes without saying that Kentucky is Clinton country.”
In her high-wattage race against McConnell, Grimes is hoping the state will be favorable turf for her as well. On Tuesday, she compared herself to Clinton when he won the presidency in 1992, when “the country was ready for a new, fresh southern face.”
Every detail of the luncheon echoed the “fresh” quality that Grimes’ campaign hopes will define it and, by contrast, paint McConnell as a worn-out Washington cliché. To kick off the event, an all-girls choir sang a capella renditions of “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child and “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys.
The Katy Perry song “Roar” introduced Grimes and Clinton -- and if that triumph-against-the-odds anthem would be her theme song, Grimes said during her speech, McConnell's might be the Beatles classic, “Can't Buy Me Love.”
In advance of Clinton's trip to Kentucky, Republicans have worked to diminish his starpower with attacks -- including one by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on the Grimes campaign for accepting support from Clinton in spite of his affair as president with Monica Lewinsky.
“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.”
Such a direct attack underscores the competitiveness of the Senate race in Kentucky thus far — and the high stakes.
“I believe this is the most important race in the history of the commonwealth and also in the history of the United States of America,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., at the luncheon Tuesday.
By most recent measures the race between McConnell and Grimes is currently locked in a dead heat. In a Bluegrass Poll published earlier this month, Grimes led McConnell by four points, 46 percent to 42 percent.
She has followed that good news with a coming-out tour of sorts, staging interviews with major national news outlets in advance of Clinton’s visit to Kentucky.
“It’s hard to see how it could be going any better for us than it is,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The early involvement from Clinton has added to the buoyant mood among Democrats and the Grimes campaign. The Clinton bump has its limits, however: The former president twice campaigned in Kentucky in 2010 for the Democratic Senate candidate, Jack Conway, but Conway nevertheless lost on Election Day to Rand Paul.
Those prior appearances by Clinton, said McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton, shows the former president likely won’t persuade undecided voters, but he’s well-liked among Kentucky Democrats and “he energizes their base.”
Democrats are banking on him doing just that. Clinton is expected to maintain a visible presence on the campaign trail during this key midterm election year, which will decide whether Democrats keep their majority in the Senate. He has privately committed to campaign at some point on behalf of Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who is among the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year, and will likely extend that invitation to others.
But it’s no coincidence that Clinton selected the Kentucky Senate race as his first target. The former president has long been friends with Grimes and her father, Jerry Lundergan, who is a former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. When Grimes was weighing whether to run for Senate, Clinton met with her to discuss the decision.
Grimes played up her ties to Clinton on Tuesday, repeatedly invoking the story of how she and her four sisters gave roses to Clinton during his first inaugural celebration in Washington. And when she finished her speech, Grimes introduced the former president as “a friend, a mentor, an adviser.”
The Image of Clinton and Grimes together is one her campaign won’t let Kentuckians soon forget: Grimes’ campaign filmed the entire event to use in a campaign video later.
And the former president will likely return to the Bluegrass State in short order. Long after the ballroom had cleared out, Lundergan was making his final once-around when a reporter asked him, when will Clinton be back?
“Whenever I call him,” Lundergan grinned.