Bill Clinton factor: Can he tip Senate race to topple McConnell?

Bill Clinton's campaign swing in Kentucky aims to give a boost to Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is slipping in the polls in a key Senate race.

Pablo Alcala/The Herald-Leader/AP
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (l.) welcomes Alison Lundergan Grimes and former President Bill Clinton to the stage during a campaign event for Ms. Grimes at the Carrick House in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday. Grimes is the Democratic challenger to Sen. Mitch McConnell.

In the most closely watched Senate race in the country, Bill Clinton is campaigning for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky on Wednesday.

Lucky Grimes.

It’s not so easy to get the popular former president to come to your aid. Mr. Clinton's time is precious. He runs a global foundation. He’s a highly sought-after speaker. And then there’s the matter of his wife’s potential presidential campaign.

So in this election cycle, when President Obama’s name is mud in a red state like Kentucky, it helps to be an FOB (friend of Bill) if you want his support. Or to live in a state that could help Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. Ms. Grimes, who is in a tight race against Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, qualifies on both fronts.

Clinton was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Kentucky in a presidential election – both times. His wife handily beat Mr. Obama there in the 2008 presidential primary.

In February, the former president raised more than $600,000 for Grimes at a Louisville fundraiser. Today, he’s campaigning for her first in Lexington and then in Hazard, deep in depressed coal country. Coal is a tough issue for Grimes, because of Obama’s “war on coal,” as Senator McConnell calls it.

“It’s not a big surprise that [Clinton’s] campaigning” in Kentucky, says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report. “It stems from a long friendship.” 

The bond began with Grimes’s father, Jerry, and was forged back in the 1980s. That’s when Mr. Lundergan – who shares a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative with “Bubba” – was a delegate in the state legislature and chairman of the state Democratic Party. Clinton was governor of close-by Arkansas. During an event at his first presidential inaugural, a teenaged Alison handed the president a bouquet of roses at the Lincoln Memorial.

Now Clinton is trying to keep the bloom on the rose of his protégé, Kentucky’s young secretary of state whom he encouraged to run. She’s trailing McConnell by just 2 points, at 45 percent to 47 percent, according to the July Bluegrass Poll commissioned by Kentucky media.

With a poll margin of error at +/- 4.1 percent, the race is still a virtual tie, but Democrats are worried that she has fallen back in every Bluegrass poll since her February high, when she was up by 4 points.

"It is so close and there is plenty of time to reverse that trend," Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe told the Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky. "But it shows that Mitch McConnell's attacks are working and she's going to have to respond better than she has so far."

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the Senate this year, and “Bill Clinton is going to be a fairly hot commodity and Hillary Clinton, too, depending on how much she wants to campaign in these fairly red states,” says Kyle Kondick of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

His value is in fundraising, lending credibility to candidates, and inspiring the base in states where Obama is not popular. “The kind of Clinton Democratic Party is something different from the Obama Democratic Party,” says Mr. Kondick. “It’s a little less obviously liberal.”

Clinton’s campaign events so far this campaign cycle include Democratic fundraisers in his home state of Arkansas (for James Lee Witt, former head of FEMA under Clinton, who is running for Congress; Patrick Henry Hays, longtime friend, also running for Congress; for former US Rep. Mike Ross, who drove for Clinton when he ran for a second term as governor, now running for governor himself; and for embattled Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor).

He’s also headlined state Democratic Party fundraisers in Florida and Michigan – both battleground states that would be key to a Hillary Clinton win.

Political experts expect him to pick up the pace come fall. Indeed, the Grimes campaign expects him back in Kentucky and says he will feature in television ads.

Will all this make a difference? In Kentucky, actually, some political analysts have their doubts. Stuart Rothenberg has said that there is so much media coverage of the Kentucky race that voters will be able to make up their own minds – without needing to rely on a celebrity to do it for them. 

Clinton’s fundraiser and ad spot for his son-in-law’s mother, former US Rep. Marjorie Margolies – who was trying to regain the seat she lost after casting the deciding vote for an unpopular Clinton spending plan – did not stop her from losing her primary in May

But Grimes can be heartened by this: The Clintons went all out for their friend Terry McAuliffe last year in a nail-biter race for Virginia governor. Mr. McAuliffe eked out a narrow victory – with a little help from his friends.

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