By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT It wasn’t the smoothest of political announcements though it would be hard to match for suspense.
When Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old Democratic first-term Secretary of State, entered the downstairs of the building on Democrat Drive here on Monday, there was no guarantee she would tell supporters she was running for the U.S. Senate against Kentucky’s most powerful Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Even after the meeting began, most of the approximately 100 in the room remained in suspense. Grimes didn’t tell them she was running — she instead asked them what they thought.
“She wanted to make sure the grassroots organization people that worked to elect her secretary of state were all still with her if she ran,” said state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.
“She was very truthful when she told reporters that she was doing her due diligence,” Stein said. “She wanted to be armed with the best information she could have to make the race.”
Standing along the wall, Grimes’ father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, seemed tense, though he kept a smile on his face. He apparently told more than one person in the room he “honestly doesn’t know” what Grimes would decide.
The meeting actually began with former governor and state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, “putting on his preaching shoes” and ginning up the crowd by saying Grimes would soundly defeat McConnell, Stein recalled.
It was clear most wanted Grimes to run, but there were a few with reservations.
Some feared if she ran and lost it would damage her future prospects, Stein said. “But several of us didn’t agree with that. She’s young and she has a very bright future.”
Some of those with reservations wanted Grimes to run for attorney general or governor, but she was also told a race for the Senate would help Democrats hold onto control of the state House of Representatives.
State Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, was among those wanting Grimes to run for the Senate.
“I think she’s the best candidate our party has,” Smart said of Grimes, describing her as “a bright and hard-working young person who is ready to step forward for the good of our state.”
Reporters and television cameras were already camped out in a sweltering room upstairs, waiting for the promised 3 p.m. announcement when they heard a burst of cheers from downstairs, which most took as an indication Grimes had told supporters she would run.
They grew impatient as 3 p.m. came and went. They heard another cheer from downstairs and several Grimes supporters began filing into the room with smiles on their faces.
Meanwhile, Grimes was apparently on the telephone, telling her mother and others of her decision. Upstairs, one of her advisers, Jonathan Hurst, stepped to the microphone and told the reporters she’d be coming to the podium shortly.
By the time Grimes appeared, it was 30 minutes past the announced 3 p.m. time for the announcement. She stood before a secretary of state banner because “that’s all we had,” according to one of her staff.
Republicans were quick to point out the apparent lack of preparation.
“If yesterday’s half-hearted attempt at an announcement tells us anything, it’s that Alison Lundergan Grimes is definitely not ready for primetime,” Kelsey Cooper, communications director for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said Tuesday. “After six months of so-called ‘due diligence,’ her five-minute rollout was as embarrassing as it was disorganized. Clearly her preparation wasn’t very thorough.”
McConnell called Grimes’ announcement “courageous” because she accepted “the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama’s Kentucky candidate.”
But given Republican operatives’ and supporters’ emails and text messages to reporters throughout the afternoon Monday, they were clearly following developments closely and with a sense of suspense.
On Tuesday, McConnell visited Frankfort Regional Medical Center where he met with doctors, nurses and administrators to discuss the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the medical industry. He never mentioned Grimes and he refused to take questions from reporters.
Instead, McConnell told the group 2014 is the last opportunity for voters to reverse passage of the health-care reform he calls “Obamacare.”
Smart, who was meeting Tuesday with her constituents about their concerns, said Democrats in Madison County are excited about Grimes’ announcement, but are anticipating a brutal campaign from McConnell.
“What they’re not looking forward to, however, is the negative advertising,” Smart said.
In his Monday afternoon statement, McConnell said he looked “forward to a respectful exchange of ideas.”
But Tuesday afternoon, his campaign released a web video which asks, “What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?” and digitally edits multiple videos and audio of Grimes to show her talking about herself. It also includes a segment of Obama dancing with a television personality over whose head an image of Grimes is superimposed.
The release was accompanied by a statement from McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton saying Grimes floundered in her announcement Monday.
Hurst, the Grimes adviser, said Monday’s announcement wasn’t an “official rollout” and Grimes said she will spend the next two weeks organizing her campaign and beginning the formidable job of fundraising. One of the first tasks: erecting a website where contributors can donate to her campaign.
RONNIE ELLIS is based in Frankfort and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.