Yet another way to point up the party’s difference from Republicans.
Headline-writers are ready to call 2014 a banner year for Republicans. They point to signs that the mid-term elections in November will leave Democrats in a minority in both chambers of Congress. That may be right.
But after visiting Kentucky, scene of a Senate race that threatens to set records for expense and nastiness, Lexington wonders whether historians may view 2014 as something else: the year when Democratic women were placed front and centre in efforts to reconnect with ordinary voters.
The senior senator for Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, is a daunting foe. Leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, with an essentially limitless ability to raise campaign funds, his professorial exterior conceals a rare talent for political combat. During three decades in office he has swatted aside Democratic challengers and dispatched Republicans who displeased him.
To take on the 72-year-old Mr McConnell, Democrats are due to pick 35-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, an elected post at the top of the state bureaucracy. Disciplined and combative in a slightly head-girlish way (“I don’t scare easy,” she likes to say) she is known to local activists as the daughter of Jerry Lundergan, a fast-talking, self-made Democratic power-broker, former state party chairman and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
She is not the only dynastic daughter fighting a big race in 2014. In Georgia, the Democratic Senate candidate will be Michelle Nunn, daughter of Sam Nunn, a long-time former senator. One of the year’s most vulnerable Democrats, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, can draw on local goodwill towards her father, Moon Landrieu, who as mayor of New Orleans worked hard to improve race relations. In Florida the Democrats have recruited Gwen Graham, daughter of Bob, a former senator and governor, to fight Republicans for a knife-edge House district.
It is true that political sons have sought office since America’s founding. It is true, too that some Republican daughters have stepped forward during this election season. Liz Cheney (daughter of the former vice-president) made a brief, fruitless run for her party’s Senate candidacy in Wyoming. A Republican governor’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, is running for the Senate in West Virginia–though she is already a seven-term congresswoman. But this year Democrats stand out for entrusting important contests to women with well-known names.
Kentucky Democrats are a revealing case study. For many Democrats, the state is a puzzle. Some of its frustrations are unique. Others reflect the struggles Democrats have to win the trust of blue-collar voters across America. Like many of its neighbours, the state was run by white southern Democrats who felt orphaned by their national leaders’ embrace of civil rights for blacks.
Unlike in neighbouring states, Kentucky Democrats have been slow to switch their allegiance, across-the-board, to the Republicans. The governor is a two-term Democrat, and Democrats control most statewide offices, as well as half the state legislature. In contrast, Republicans dominate congressional elections, and Barack Obama twice lost Kentucky by a landslide.
Various reasons are offered for the Democrats’ partial survival. A small black population (the state is almost 90% white) lessened fears of a black Democratic power-grab, explains Al Cross of the University of Kentucky. Part of it is family “tradition”, says Governor Steve Beshear. Locals are “tribal”, says David Cartmell, the Democratic mayor of Maysville, a tiny port city on the Ohio river that is Mrs Lundergan Grimes’s ancestral home.
Mrs Lundergan Grimes won the county by two to one in her 2011 race to become secretary of state. Mr Cartmell’s mother and grandmother were both mayors (and Democrats), and are remembered fondly: the flood defences built by his grandmother can be seen from City Hall. Mr Clinton, who has campaigned for Mrs Lundergan Grimes, is popular too; Maysville’s economy boomed when he was president.
Yet Mason County went solidly Republican red for Mr McConnell in 2008 and for Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate, four years later. In part, Republicans can thank local self-interest, and in part conservative values. Mr McConnell is praised for sending federal cash to build a cookery school–a giant cardboard cheque for $US2.6m, adorned with the senator’s signature, hangs in the mayor’s office. Coal trains rumble through Maysville daily, and locals deeply distrust environmental curbs on mining. Folk are keen on church, gun rights and the armed forces.
Locals like Democrats who are “Kentucky-fried”, says the state’s attorney-general, Jack Conway. It is the values of national Democrats that are often seen as alien. Enter Mrs Lundergan Grimes, who has never served in Washington, and whose name (and Clinton connections) should help stir tribal loyalties of the past.
She is careful to send signals about old-time Kentucky values, calling herself pro-coal and pro-gun, for instance. But she has a 21st-century mission as well: delivering the party’s latest messages about economic populism, many aimed explicitly at women, a rising voter bloc with a strong Democratic bent.
Addressing the Fayette County Democrats’ dinner this week, Mrs Lundergan Grimes painted free-market qualms about higher minimum wages and other interventions as an archaic defence of discrimination. Mr McConnell is “the senator of yesterday”, championing yesterday’s views on women and the economy, she declared, to cheers.
Mr McConnell will still be hard to beat in Kentucky. Much will depend on how each party turns out the vote. Even so, expect more candidates with names to stir old-timers and a message of economic populism crafted to recruit new Democrats, especially women. For Democratic bigwigs, 2014 is more than a tough election year. More and more, theirs is a party preparing for Hillary Clinton.
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