Herald-Leader Political Writer
Kentucky women deserve far better than the pandering they will face over the next year. But since they represent almost 53 percent of the vote in the commonwealth, they should probably go ahead and put on their hip waders.
Trying to win favor with such a crucial voting bloc, however, presents plenty of political perils for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell.
For McConnell, let’s call it “the Rick Lazio lesson.” For Grimes, “the Sarah Palin parable.”
Hold on to that hate mail for a second. These are not general or far-reaching comparisons between McConnell and Lazio or Grimes and Palin, but they do carry specific lessons for both campaigns.
In early September 2008, just days after Republican presidential nominee John McCain announced then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, a group of high-profile GOP women called a press conference at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Women like Carly Fiorina and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., ripped into the assembled media for their sexist approach toward Palin. They were mostly referring to reprehensible Internet rumors and the occasional talking head doing what talking heads do.
To most press in the room, it struck a nerve. Palin was virtually unheard of and stood to be within a heartbeat of the presidency of the United States. Shouldn’t her qualifications and background be pertinent information for voters? Was the pursuit of that information sexist?
The GOP counter-attack persisted through the election.
America had its say, and Palin built a strong and loyal following. But on Nov. 4, 2008, exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters said Palin was not qualified to be president if the need arose.
Like Palin, Grimes has a lot of work to do to satisfy voters’ questions about where she stands on the issues.
Last week, Grimes and her Democratic supporters expressed outrage after the National Republican Senatorial Committee promoted a picture of Grimes’ head on the body of Amber Lee Ettinger, the so-called “Obama girl.”
It’s up to individual women to decide whether they were offended, but how much stronger would her hand have been had she been a forceful voice this summer when state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, was accused of sexually harassing three women staffers?
And why did the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee describe Amber Lee Ettinger, the Obama girl, as “sex crazed” in one of its counter-attacks on McConnell? A DSCC spokeswoman declined last week to answer that question.
The day after the doctored photo appeared, Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton sent out a news release that accused Republicans of saying Grimes “was asking for it.” Norton acknowledged that no Republican had actually said those words, saying in an email that the phrase associated with sexual assault was an “idiomatic expression.”
Meanwhile, at an hour-long roundtable in Mayfield Friday, Grimes repeatedly informed the crowd she would be Kentucky’s first female senator and told them they should vote for her and her “empty dress.”
“That’s what Mitch McConnell refers to me as, an empty dress,” Grimes said. (She was actually referring to a comment in September by NRSC staffer Brad Dayspring, but candidates get to take responsibility for the bad and the good contributions of those who work on their behalf.)
Grimes told the mostly male group of farmers that “I know you got a strong woman behind you” and that “it’s what’s in the brain [that] matters.”
She wasn’t nearly as quick to leap to the defense of gay people or Mexican immigrants, who were the targets of some derogatory remarks during the event.
For example, when asked if she believed in “Adam and Eve” or “Adam and Steve,” Grimes laughed along with the crowd before offering a lengthy answer that explained there is a constitutional amendment in Kentucky that prevents same-sex marriage, that she has been married for seven years and that “others should be able to have that same commitment.”
The good news for Grimes continues to be that she is not McConnell. McConnell’s woes with women voters are so well known at this point that the risks he faces are obvious.
Going by the only polling available, sponsored by groups with ideological leanings, Grimes is running about 10 points ahead with women. McConnell can’t afford to lose women by such a large margin.
In 2008, he narrowly defeated Democrat Bruce Lunsford with slightly less than 53 percent of the vote. In that race, an Associated Press exit poll found that McConnell won 50 percent of women voters, compared to 49 percent for Lunsford.
Since then, McConnell has voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act and against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
But perhaps a bigger threat to McConnell, one of the original co-authors of the Equal Rights Amendment, is his one-speed campaign style: scorch the Earth and go back for the moon.
McConnell likes to play a vicious kind of politics, and he is a Hall of Famer when it comes to going negative and nasty. If he does that against Grimes, he may lose.
Hence, the Lazio lesson.
In Hillary Clinton’s 2000 New York State Senate run, Lazio, a Republican, walked from his podium to Clinton’s, demanding she sign a pledge against using so-called soft money in the campaign.
The Clinton campaign had been preparing the soil for a while, and it was ready to use the incident to turn Lazio’s claims of strength into a charge of bullying. When he stepped away from his podium, Lazio might as well have stepped out of the race. The media and the campaign seized on the move as an example of his bullying, aggressive demeanor.
Grimes has made clear she is ready and willing to talk quickly and forcibly about anything that resembles sexist or misogynistic behavior.
If McConnell takes one step in that direction, he will likely find a backlash he has not seen before. Folks who decry and debate double-standards, as McConnell’s campaign did last week, usually have plenty of time to make their points after they’ve lost in November.
To win next fall, Grimes must be more than offended, and McConnell must be more than offensive.