Lunsford on Grimes & McConnell: Debating just one of many challenges Grimes will face

07/06/2014 02:45 PM

Editor’s Note: This is a latest in an occasional series of interviews about the U.S. Senate race with Kentucky political figures who have opposed or helped U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell or Alison Lundergan Grimes in the past.

UPDATED: Bruce Lunsford, the last Democrat to debate Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in a race, said Alison Lundergan Grimes might be the right person to challenge McConnell — but will have her hands full in trying to face the senior senator in public forums.

In a phone interview with Pure Politics, Lunsford said McConnell is not only a tough debater but a master at getting the most favorable conditions possible for such forums. Lunsford and McConnell debated three times six years ago. And Lunsford described them as “McConnell invitationals” with formats set up for McConnell to succeed.

Lunsford expected Grimes would debate McConnell, but he predicted she would face the same pitfalls that he felt he faced in 2008. McConnell did debate Lunsford three times in different parts of the state — the Kentucky Farm Bureau forum in Louisville, one in Northern Kentucky in September and one in western Kentucky 12 days before the election. McConnell declined to debate on a statewide television broadcast at KET. Lunsford appeared alone on the program.

More than six weeks into this year’s general election, McConnell and Grimes have yet to agree on a debate.

Lunsford compared McConnell’s campaign style, including with debates, to the fable of the scorpion and the frog.

In the fable, a scorpion needs the frog’s help to cross a river. The frog hesitantly agrees, but the scorpion stings the frog midway, when asked why the scorpion doomed them both, the scorpion replied that it is just his nature. The parable is meant to illustrate that even knowing the right thing to do, the scorpion acts in its true nature.

McConnell has stung his opponents, frequently ending their political careers — but hasn’t exactly boosted his own popularity in the process. Still, Lunsford called Grimes the “best talent” in Kentucky politics.

Still no debates

McConnell extended a written invitation to debate Grimes a day after the May 20 primary with terms for how the debates should be conducted. For instance, McConnell wrote that the first should take place before July 4. That didn’t happen.

McConnell also requested the debates should be conducted in the freewheeling Lincoln-Douglas style with no audience and one moderator whose role is to keep the candidates on topic — not to ask questions.

The Grimes campaign took two weeks to respond to McConnell. Grimes disagreed with the format McConnell proposed.

Multiple media outlets including Pure Politics officially submitted requests to host debates between the candidates, with McConnell accepting a request from WDRB’s Bill Lamb and Grimes accepting the invitation of KET. The June 21 date McConnell selected with WDRB came and went without a debate.

The campaigns still have not agreed to set any venue or timetable for debate.

“If Alison Lundergan Grimes wants to continue to be the first challenger in recent memory to decline an opportunity to debate an incumbent that probably tells voters more than she ever could by accepting,” McConnell’s campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore recently told Pure Politics.

The campaign for Grimes said they are ready to debate McConnell.

“As we have said for weeks now, our campaign stands ready to debate,” Grimes’ campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said. “Kentuckians deserve a full and open opportunity to participate in the process and hear the two candidates’ vastly different visions for the future of the Commonwealth: Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has a jobs plan to put Kentuckians back to work, and Mitch McConnell, a 30-year Washington insider who claims bringing jobs to Kentucky is not his responsibility.”

Presidential Problems

Grimes has been positioning herself in speeches and ads as a moderate Democrat who would operate from the middle if elected. As the primary wrapped up, Grimes ran ads criticizing Democratic President Barack Obama and said she opposed EPA regulations the Obama administration unveiled in June.

“Coal has become a larger than life issue in this campaign,” Lunsford said on the issue of coal and flagged a larger line of attack against Grimes — President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the state, and Republican attempts to tie her to the president.

“Obama is not going to be around after the next two years,” Lunsford said. Obama’s term expires at the end of 2016 and the Senate term McConnell and Grimes are fighting over lasts until 2020.

Lunsford said the attempts to tie Obama to Grimes are to be expected as “a lot of the policies of Obama are not the policies of Kentuckians.”

But he said McConnell has his own popularity problems.

“The difference is that Mitch McConnell’s negatives are his negatives. Alison’s negatives are Obama’s,” Lunsford said.

Lunsford held tight with McConnell in polls during the 2008 race, but McConnell benefited by a strong showing from Republican presidential candidate John McCain and reluctance from some Kentucky Democrats who never quite forgave him for a brutal primary and eventual endorsement of Republican Ernie Fletcher against Ben Chandler in the 2003 governor’s race.

McConnell targeted Lunsford’s business record in ads during the campaign, something Lunsford told Pure Politics that Democrats need to work on.

“Democrats should feel just as good about accomplishments,” Lunsford said.

The main theme from McConnell in 2008 was his seniority, and his status as Kentucky’s second party leader in the state’s history. In the race, McConnell tied his rank to the amount of federal funding he secured for the state — something he won’t be able to do in this race.

But McConnell has used his status of minority leader as a major campaign theme in this election.

High Profile Democrats

Grimes has made waves bringing in high profile national Democrats to campaign for her with former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, making stops in the state so far this year.

Lunsford said Grimes is “getting good advice” from her campaign staff and bringing Warren was a good move for the campaign.

“Warren gives her some gravitas,” Lunsford said. “I’m a big fan of Elizabeth — she’s the only one who has manned up against the banks.”

Some political consultants in the state questioned Grimes’ campaign decision to bring in a national Democrat at time when Republicans have been repeatedly trying to nationalize the race.

“If you look at the policies Alison Lundergan Grimes is promoting and the national liberals she’s associating with, she’s not even hiding her allegiances anymore,” said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore.

Grimes and Warren told a crowd on the campus of the University of Louisville on Sunday that they don’t agree on every issue.

With four months to go in the election, Lunsford said the candidates are a “long way from the finish line” and that just as the polls show it will be a “very close race.”


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