CORBIN — Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
Forget the polls which show Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes maintaining a small lead over incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
McConnell is winning the battle to shape the debate the way he wants. In the nearly four weeks since the primary, the conversation has been entirely about coal, Harry Reid and President Barack Obama.
Grimes can’t win that debate. It doesn’t matter that Obama will be president for two more years regardless of who wins in November. It doesn’t matter that there is no discernible difference between Grimes and McConnell on coal.
To win, Grimes must convince voters the election is about McConnell and his resistance to policies which boost the economic prospects of working families. She needs to represent herself as an alternative to congressional dysfunction.
That’s why bringing Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Kentucky may help. McConnell and his allies are giddy about the news, portraying Warren as “another anti-coal liberal,” a former Harvard professor who has no clue about the realities of Kentuckian’s lives.
But Warren is an effective communicator on populist themes. Despite her academic background, she’s good at framing economic issues in ways voters understand and can relate to their everyday lives. She holds populist economic positions which used to be part of Democratic orthodoxy in Kentucky.
It’s conventional wisdom McConnell converted Kentucky to a Republican state, turning once solid Democratic western Kentucky his party’s way in federal elections by exploiting its socially conservative sentiments. But it’s often overlooked that the “old” western Kentucky Democrats, while always socially conservative, were also economic populists. They favored social security and the economic development programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But they were essentially Dixiecrats who were turned off by the Democratic Party’s leftward drift on Vietnam, social issues and civil rights.
McConnell understood that. While he was engineering a Republican takeover of the Kentucky congressional delegation McConnell tied Kentucky Democrats to more liberal national Democrats while extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan’s economic policies and his own ability to keep federal money coming to Kentucky.
But the tea party insurgency has robbed McConnell of the last talking point. In 2008, he campaigned against Bruce Lunsford in part by touting the federal money he’d brought home. He can’t do that now and he’s criticized from both left and right for supporting the bailout of Wall Street financial giants which was necessary to prevent an economic collapse but nevertheless is resented by middle-class wage earners.
Grimes understands that. During the primary — when McConnell’s attention was on primary challenger Matt Bevin — Grimes effectively pushed measures like the minimum wage and characterized McConnell as indifferent to women’s concerns and the economic reality of his constituents’ day-to-day lives. But since McConnell has turned his full attention to Grimes and the general election, Grimes has allowed him to define the debate on coal, Reid and Obama. Instead of the minimum wage and blaming McConnell for Washington gridlock, Grimes has had to defend her support for coal and try to distance herself from Obama.
Warren can help Grimes refocus the debate on economic issues. On MSNBC the other night she attacked McConnell for blocking her bill to allow people to refinance their student loans and promised to fight back by helping Grimes defeat McConnell.
McConnell, she said, is “is there for millionaires and billionaires but he’s not there for people who are working hard and playing by the rules.” She also said Grimes’ election “could almost single-handedly get rid of some of the gridlock here in Washington.” Those are things Grimes must talk about. Warren can help her do it.