Viewpoints

Dana Milbank: Kentucky Senate candidate still alive

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Last week, the national Democratic Party left Alison Lundergan Grimes for dead.

So why does she still have a pulse?

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it was stopping its TV ads for Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state and the Democrats’ challenger to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.

In political Washington, this was a nail in the coffin, coming after the candidate’s embarrassing and repeated refusal to say whether she voted for President Obama and the televised pronouncement of “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that she had “disqualified herself” – a clip McConnell’s campaign gleefully replayed in his ads.

But Grimes’ look into the abyss did her some good. In politics as in medicine, near-death experiences have a way of changing one’s outlook. When I visited Kentucky on Wednesday to see Grimes on the campaign trail, I saw a candidate who was much less cautious and scripted than the one I had been hearing and reading about. It was as if the reduced expectations had liberated her.

Grimes was venturing into Republican territory – Rand Paul country, to be specific – to speak to a gathering of Rotarians at the Bowling Green Country Club. She took some hostile questions from the crowd, and she gave as good as she got. Then she went outside and did something that, for her, is most unusual: She held a news conference.

I asked her to respond to the perception in Washington that last week’s DSCC decision had been a death knell. “It’s a lot of hyperventilating out there by the media,” she said. “This campaign is Kentucky through and through, and it’s going to be Kentuckians that carry it across the finish line.”

Another question about the national party’s move produced another swipe at Washington. “We got into this race trying to change Washington. We will change Washington,” she said, dismissing the loss of those TV dollars.

Was she surprised that the question of whether she voted for Obama became a dominant campaign issue? “I’m not going to be bullied by Mitch McConnell or Chuck Todd,” she said with a smile.

It would go too far to say that Grimes has transformed. She repeated her absurd position that she won’t reveal her presidential vote because of the “constitutional right for privacy.” And, though the Rotary Club discourages stump speeches, Grimes gave her usual anti-McConnell spiel, dressed up with requisite references to the good works of her “fellow Rotarians” and folksy things she heard from “mah momma.”

Her attacks on McConnell – “We have someone now that can’t get back here without the aid of a GPS!” she said, though he had spoken to the same group three weeks earlier – were met with complete silence, folded arms and drumming fingers. Yet Grimes went on denouncing McConnell for the better part of 10 minutes. She mentioned both Hillary and Bill Clinton but tiptoed around President Obama and gave only passing reference to Obamacare, though it’s popular in Kentucky.

This was the Grimes I had heard of, the one who, as Jason Zengerle put it in the New Republic, has been plagued by “crippling caution and debilitating message discipline” – a candidate permanently in a “defensive crouch.”

But then came the questions. One man complained that she never said “one way or the other” what she thinks about anti-union right-to-work laws.

“My position on right-to-work laws is it’s right to work for less,” she shot back. “I have seen first-hand the value of labor, of collective bargaining, prevailing wage. I’ve been on the picket lines.”

Yet another questioner said she had “waffled back and forth on the subject of coal.” When she gave a pro-coal response that included a call to cut environmental regulations, the questioner mockingly asked whether that’s just a message for coal-producing eastern Kentucky.

“It’s the message I’ve sent all over the state. It’s the message I’ll send when we go to Washington!” Grimes returned.

From there, she went outside for her unscheduled news conference, saying her strong showing in this week’s polls – two show her in a statistical dead heat with McConnell – means that “Kentucky won’t be bought” and that “the energy and momentum is on our side.”

Apparently the national party agreed. Half an hour after Grimes’ feisty performance in Bowling Green, the DSCC reversed its earlier decision and said it was pouring $650,000 back into TV ads for Grimes.

It’s tempting to wonder how much better Grimes would have done in this campaign if she had shed her crippling caution earlier.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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