Changing the game: How Alison Lundergan Grimes can build momentum in debating the issues

09/20/2014 06:17 PM

With 45 days before the election, the prospects of Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, debating the issues for a statewide audience beyond Oct. 13’s episode of “Kentucky Tonight” appear increasingly unlikely.

In the latest back-and-forth on the topic of debates, Grimes this week accepted dates in late October for a University of Pikeville forum hosted by The Appalachian News-Express that McConnell declined, citing a previously scheduled bus tour. Grimes told Pure Politics Thursday she will attend with or without McConnell. The candidates have appeared at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s ‘Measure the Candidates’ forum in August with only Kentucky Educational Television’s “Kentucky Tonight” Oct. 13 program remaining on their public sparring schedule.

Debating a figure like McConnell, who has served in Congress for 30 years, could be tricky for the 35-year-old first-term Kentucky secretary of state, but regardless of the inherent risks, national and state observers say Grimes has more to gain in standing toe-to-toe with McConnell. That’s especially true considering the incumbent has gained momentum in public polls with the Nov. 4 election near, observers said.

“I don’t see much of a risk to Grimes because my sense is that she’s losing, and if she has a bad debate, does that really change the outcome?” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Pure Politics in a phone interview.

“… Now, maybe they don’t believe that she’s trailing, but I think that what we know publicly sort of indicates that she is. And again, you need something to change that because it’s hard to move numbers in the Senate race, particularly in a race that essentially has been going on for like a year or more now.”

Les Fugate, a former chief political aide to former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, had cautioned Grimes against debating McConnell, but his perspective has changed in the campaign’s waning days.

“Now we’re to the point of Alison needs something to change the game,” Fugate said in a phone interview with Pure Politics. “… The only way right now that she’s going to be able to change the game and it being somewhat in her control is through a debate.”

Opening the debate to questions from the candidates would also allow Grimes to control the tone of discourse for a time, which could provide her an opportunity to question McConnell on topics central to her campaign, such as pay equity for women and economic issues, said longtime Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe.

McConnell’s history in Washington, D.C., could also become fodder for Grimes in a debate, he said.

“He can talk about (President Barack) Obama and that’s what he’s done almost constantly, but you know, there’s lots of things that he could be asked about — violence against women, equal pay for women, what happened when they took all of the restrictions off of all the businesses that caused the economy to go into the worst depression since the depression,“ Briscoe said. “There’s a lot of areas that he is subject to be asked questions about because he’s been up there for 30 years.”

Debating McConnell could also boost Grimes’ credibility to voters, said University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss.

McConnell might perform flawlessly in a debate against Grimes, but she still could build momentum in competing against someone with McConnell’s political pedigree, he said.

“Grimes clearly benefits if McConnell makes a mistake, and given that a lot of polls show her behind, then she’s in that role now of the person who has less risk, short-term risk,” Voss said. “Even if he doesn’t make a mistake, the ability of someone relatively inexperienced to go up on the stage with a seasoned politician and hold her own still comes off as a bit of a victory because it gets her credibility.”

Voss likened a McConnell-Grimes debate to the first nationally televised presidential debate in 1960, when first-term U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy performed well against then-Vice President Richard Nixon. While Nixon’s political experience dwarfed Kennedy’s, the upstart Democrat shined on the national stage en route to the White House.

“He didn’t really win the debate in any classic sense of Nixon making a big error, but it still gave Kennedy a lot of credibility to be cool under the pressure of facing off against a more experienced politician,” Voss said.

He added that Grimes has her political future to consider, whether or not she unseats McConnell. Above all else, Voss said she must avoid an “Aqua Buddha” moment when debating McConnell, a reference to an infamous ad from Democratic Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in his unsuccessful campaign against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2010.

“The debate still has risks for her because she’s got to hold her own,” Voss said. “If she doesn’t hold her own, it wouldn’t just hurt her in this election. It would hurt next time, too.”

Fugate also referenced the “Aqua Buddha” ad, but took an opposite view of the potential fallout if Grimes has a misstep against McConnell in a debate.

“People make mistakes all the time, and Kentucky’s a pretty forgiving state,” he said. “I look back at the ‘Aqua Buddha’ ad. That was a really bad mistake — I mean, a really bad mistake. And now Conway is the leading candidate to be governor in the polls, so I don’t know that some kind of mistake like that would haunt her for the rest of her political career.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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