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Alison Lundergan Grimes Is Running the Worst Senate Campaign of the Year

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It seems like a safe assumption that if you’re currently a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, you voted for Barack Obama two years ago. And if you’re a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who also served as a delegate for Obama at the 2012 Democratic Convention? Well then, yeah, it’s a very good bet you pulled the lever for the president that year.

But Alison Lundergan Grimes, currently the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky and a delegate for Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, apparently thinks voters are idiots. So desperate is Grimes to avoid any association with the president—whose approval rating in Kentucky is just 31 percent—that, two weeks ago, when a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter asked her if she voted for Obama, she ignored the question and turned her back on the reporter. Then last Thursday, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal’s editorial board, she simply refused to answer the same question. First, Grimes said, “This election isn’t about the president.” When the Courier-Journal editorial board member repeated the question, Grimes replied that she’d been a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008 and that “Kentuckians know I’m a Clinton Democrat.” Finally, after the question was asked of her a third time, Grimes filibustered, “I respect the sanctity of the ballot box.” “So you’re not going to answer,” the Courier-Journal editorial board member stated flatly.

Grimes’s inability to cop to the obvious made headlines in Kentucky and became cable news fodder, with NBC's Chuck Todd going so far as to say that she’d “disqualified herself” as a candidate. That’s a bit overwrought—not to mention unfair. As Paul Waldman notes in The Washington Post, it’s absurd that pundits rake Grimes over the coals for not saying who she voted for while they give a pass to Congressman Tom Cotton, a Senate candidate in Arkansas, for saying that ISIS is in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels to infiltrate the U.S. and to Joni Ernst, a Senate candidate in Iowa, for saying that states can “nullify” federal laws they don’t like. “The standard being employed,” Waldman writes, “isn’t ‘Does this statement reveal something genuinely disturbing about this candidate?’ but rather, ‘Is this going to be politically damaging?’”

And yet, Grimes’s gaffe does reveal something genuinely disturbing about her—or at least her candidacy. And that’s why it’s so politically damaging. Grimes’s refusal to say who she voted for is emblematic of her entire campaign, which, for the last 15 months, has been waged in a defensive crouch—evading and obfuscating at every turn.

The reason for that crouch is obvious. Grimes doesn’t want to give her Republican opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, any openings for an attack. Even in this age of scripted, on-message politicians, Grimes has stood out for her, uh, discipline. When I was writing an article about the Kentucky Senate race last year, just scoring an interview with Grimes was an ordeal. After initially ignoring my interview requests, her campaign eventually told me that I could talk to her for 15 minutes before a rally she was doing in Owensboro, a river town in Western Kentucky. But on my 100-plus-mile drive to Owensboro from Louisville, I got a call on my cell phone from Grimes’s press secretary telling me that the candidate was running late and the interview was off. When I and another reporter—who’d driven even farther, from Lexington—tried to buttonhole Grimes after her speech, she pretended that she was talking on a cell phone and breezed past us. Finally, about a week later, I managed to get Grimes on the phone for about 10 minutes and, honestly, it was 10 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

With McConnell doing everything he can to tie Grimes to Obama—as one prominent Kentucky Democrat put it to me last year, “The only way they can beat [Grimes] is to paint her skin a different color than it is and make her gender a different gender than it is”—Grimes has apparently concluded that refusing to admit that she was one of the 62 million Americans (and one of the 679,000 Kentuckians) who preferred Obama to Mitt Romney in 2012 is some sort of victory. “There’s a reason why McConnell hasn’t run one ad of her talking,” one Democratic strategist boasted to me. “That’s amazing!”

While Grimes may have denied McConnell the ammo to convince Kentuckians to vote against her, she hasn’t given the citizens of the commonwealth many good reasons to vote for her. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis has already criticized Grimes for not using Obamacare to her advantage, but it’s even bigger than any single issue. Grimes’s strategy has been to bank on McConnell’s lack of popularity—never a beloved pol among Kentuckians, his approval ratings tend to hover in the 40s—and hope that, by dint of the fact that she’s not McConnell, she’ll win. That strategy has admittedly worked well with Democratic donors in places like New York and California, who so loathe McConnell that they've eagerly filled Grimes's campaign coffers. One Democratic aide told me that Grimes's national fundraising network is second only to Elizabeth Warren's. But Grimes's crippling caution and debilitating message discipline have done very little to boost her own standing with voters in Kentucky, at least those who don't already despise McConnell. In fact, it's probably harmed it: Grimes holds just a three-point lead over McConnell among female voters, the group that she was banking on to win big and carry her to victory. “The campaign has cocooned her so much that you don’t get the fact that she’s a bright, capable, smart young woman,” says Jimmy Cauley, a Kentucky Democratic strategist who's been impressed by Grimes in his personal dealings with her. “They’ve built this wall around her that hasn't allowed the good parts of her to get through. At some point voters have to know what she’s about.”

The builder of that wall, besides Grimes herself, is presumably her father, Jerry Lundergan. A former Kentucky Democratic Party chair and longtime friend of the Clinton’s, Jerry has tried to keep a low public profile during the Senate race. But it’s widely assumed that he’s calling the shots in his daughter’s campaign, which is being helmed by Kentucky political consultants long loyal to him. “There’s nobody on the campaign that can look Jerry in the eye and say, ‘No Jerry, we’re not going to do that,'” says Al Cross, the Courier-Journal’s former chief political writer. And, in the end, Lundergan’s Kentucky yes-men just don’t appear to be up to the task of unseating McConnell. “They chose not to bring in national talent,” says Cauley, “and it’s showing.”

More to the point, Grimes's candidacy is showing just how absurd—and ultimately self-defeating the modern political campaign has become. So preoccupied with not making mistakes, and demonizing the opponent, the modern political campaign often forgets what would seemingly be its most important task: to make an affirmative case for its candidate. If Grimes and Terri Lynn Land—the Republican candidate for Senate in Michigan who's run a similarly bunkered race—both go down to defeat, perhaps it'll serve as something of a wake-up call to strategists on both sides of the aisle.

On Monday night, Grimes will get what is probably her last, best shot at getting elected to the Senate: Her one, and only, debate against McConnell. She’ll likely need a Romney-in-Denver-caliber performance to change the trend lines of this race, which FiveThirtyEight currently says McConnell has a 75 percent chance of winning. For a candidate who hasn’t exactly shown a facility thus far for thinking on her feet, that might be a tall order. At the very least, you have to assume Grimes will have prepared a better response to the question of whether she voted for Obama.