Alison Grimes was coming off a bad week. For months, the Democrat challenging incumbent Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell had gone to great lengths to avoid saying anything that might be construed as support for President Barack Obama, and the dodging and weaving had finally gotten ridiculous. When the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal asked about her vote in the 2008 presidential election, she didn’t just refuse to answer the question directly, but clumsily retreated into her canned answer about Obama not being on the ballot this November. Grimes took a beating in the political media, with Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd hyperventilating that she’d “disqualified herself” from the race.
The vitriolic reaction was kind of weird, though: Grimes was just as maddeningly on-message when I interviewed her in July. Every question about Obama — or anything, really — was answered with an attack on McConnell. And she’s been doggedly sticking to this game plan for more than a year. All of which made what Grimes did last night fairly impressive.
In the one and only head-to-head debate of the campaign, Grimes was looser than she’s been in most of her appearances. She kept the conversation focused as much as possible on Kentucky, repeatedly returning to her “jobs plan,” a document that’s pretty broad-brush but still more substantive than what McConnell has offered. True, Grimes too often ceded the floor to McConnell, allowing the Republican to deliver lectures on his love of the coal industry and government procedure. And she again punted on the presidential vote question, pleading “the sanctity of the ballot box,” which may have seemed high-minded but still sounded needlessly evasive.
But the real cost of Grimes’s Obama-phobia was more subtle. It hamstrung her from going after McConnell in more detail when he made his own risible claims, like pinning the blame for the shallow economic recovery entirely on the president. Grimes made glancing mention of the 2013 government shutdown and “two wars on a nation’s credit cards,” but she shied away from talking about how McConnell and the Republicans have blocked the use of fiscal tools that could have boosted employment, and how the debt McConnell claims to abhor was fueled by GOP spending — and isn’t out of line with historical norms.
Second-guessing from New York and Washington, though, is a whole lot less important than how the debate is being refracted in Kentucky. This morning, the state’s papers and TV accounts seem to be portraying the event as basically a draw, or they’re giving McConnell a slight edge. Sure, Grimes would have benefited more from some enormous McConnell gaffe. Yet one of her biggest challenges all along has been to sell herself as a plausible, competent alternative to a man with 30 years of Washington experience, and she gained some ground in that respect. Alison Grimes’s caution may not be pretty or good for democracy, and she remains the underdog. But her Not Mitch/Not Obama strategy has kept her within a handful of points of McConnell this long. She’s not about to change it three weeks before Election Day.