Campaigner-in-Chief Hits Ropes in Kentucky

Image: Bill Clinton, Alison Lundergan Grimes

Alison Lundergan Grimes with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. Timothy D. Easley / AP

LOUISVILLE, KY -- Bill Clinton was back on the campaign trail Tuesday, and he was right at home.

In Louisville, the former president delivered the kind of folksy, philosophical stem-winder that his fellow Democrats crave of him - this time, on behalf of Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.

For half-an-hour, Clinton veered from sweeping observations about the media landscape, to musings on how agriculture programs in Malawi could be a model for lawmakers. Or something like that.

It was classic campaign Clinton - meandering but meaty, wonky yet conversational. And the crowd of donors were rapt, howling at his down-home humor and jockeying for position to shake his hand on the rope line, where Clinton lingered long after Grimes headed backstage.

"I love Kentucky," Clinton said, quickly reminding the audience of his presidential wins here in 1992 and 1996. "You've been good to me. Y'all voted for me twice."

That makes Clinton a different kind of Democrat in this state; different even than the man currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So while Grimes rolled out the proverbial red carpet for Clinton, she had a different view of campaigning with President Barack Obama.

"I speak for myself, don't need any other surrogate to do that for me," she told NBC News last week when asked about a potential Obama visit. "I stand in stark contrast to the president, of his ideas and platforms."

Clinton's first campaign trip of the 2014 cycle isn't just a chance to boost Grimes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Democratic adversary. It's a re-connection with a state with a cultural kinship to Arkansas, the home that vaunted him to political rock star status.

And it's another occasion to connect with a political family he's cultivated in Kentucky since the 1980s.

Family friendship runs deep

"I'd be here if she was at five percent in the polls," Clinton told the crowd in Louisville.

That's not just about Grimes, who calls him a "mentor and counselor," but about her father - longtime friend Jerry Lundergan.

Clinton befriended Lundergan when both were stars on the ascent - Clinton as the governor of Arkansas and Lundergan as a state legislator and Democratic party chairman. Lundergan remained at Clinton's side during his forays into Kentucky as a presidential candidate in 1992 and throughout his tenure in the White House.

There's plenty in Lundergan's biography that might feel familiar to Clinton, too.

Raised in a tiny town, Lundergan went on to build the catering empire that famously created the spread for Pope John Paul II's 1987 visit to Texas. Like the former president, he's faced scandal and redemption too; he lost his posts as Democratic party head and state legislator amid allegations that he improperly accepted a no-bid contract for event catering, though he avoided prison time and the conviction was later thrown out.

"He's a street brawler," said longtime Kentucky political consultant Jim Cauley. "If you go into a knife fight, a guy like Jerry would be very handy to have around. And I think that's why those guys - Bill Clinton and [former Clinton moneyman] Gov. Terry McAuliffe - that's why they like him."

The friendship hasn't faltered. When Hillary Clinton battled Barack Obama in the state's primary in 2008, Lundergan chaired her campaign effort. Lundergan sang Clinton's praises when the former president campaigned for state attorney general Jack Conway, who lost his Senate bid against Rand Paul in 2010.

That same year, Clinton keynoted the kickoff of a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign for the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center, where Lundergan's daughter Abby is a board member.

"Whenever they ask me to do something, I try to do it," Clinton said then of Lundergan and his wife. "I found that I'm going to do it sooner or later anyway, and it saves a lot of time if I just go on and say yes. Those who have dealt with them know what I'm talking about."

Bluegrass State appeal

Melinda Burden proudly showed off her handbag, colorfully embroidered with a chicken pattern and newly signed by Bill Clinton.

"Twelfth time," she said of meeting the former president.

Melinda and her husband Truman are poultry farmers who came to Louisville from western Ohio County for the big event, leaving their son watching over the fowl for the afternoon.


Truman Burden is diplomatic about the current president, who won less than 40 percent of the vote here in 2012. "Senators [who become president] are just a little different from governors, in their outlook and their perspective," he observed.

But Clinton, the couple said, changed their lives immeasurably for the better during his tenure as president - and they came, again, to say thank you.

"The changes that he brought about empowered us to have security and to have fulfillment of hopes and dreams as a couple and as a family," Truman Burden said. "We're forever indebted to him for that, for the difference he made in our lives. There's no way we can ever repay the hardships that he went through, what he had to do to become president and stay president."

If Grimes manages to best McConnell - not exactly a beloved figure in the state, either - it will be because she's convinced voters that she's a Democrat in Clinton's mold.

Clinton's appeal for Grimes now is to "remind people there are Democrats other than Obama," said Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

A significant portion of the state's rural, culturally conservative voters are still registered Democrats, held over from the party's strong presence in Appalachia in the 1950s.

"Many of those people still want to vote for the party of heritage if the candidate meets a certain threshold of acceptability," said Cross. "Grimes is trying to be a Clinton-model Democrat, and he could put that moderate Democrat stamp of approval on her that they're looking for."

As he was so keen to remind supporters in Louisville, Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate to win in the Bluegrass State since 1976.

He won the state over George H.W. Bush in 1992, with 45 percent of the vote. (Ross Perot took 14 percent.) He eked out a win against Bob Dole in 1996 with 46 percent of the vote, and a smaller slice of the pie nabbed by the third party contender.

That popularity also benefited his wife during her 2008 presidential run. Hillary Clinton demolished Obama in the state's May 20 primary, winning 66 percent of the vote and carrying all but two of the state's counties.

Cauley, who first met Clinton when he served as his Kentucky field director in 1992, said that Clinton has an almost "magical" connection with Kentucky voters, especially those in the state's more rural counties.

"In the mountains, they just love the guy." Cauley said of the former president. "He could do anything to anybody, it wouldn't matter. They still think he's one of them. He makes them feel like their problems are his problems and connects with them on that level."