By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
LEXINGTON — Critics panned Alison Lundergan Grimes’ initial announcement that she’s running for the U.S. Senate.
She got it right the second time.
More than 1,500 people showed up here to listen to the first-term Democratic Secretary of State who wants to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Grimes told the crowd it’s “time to switch” senators, time after nearly three decades of McConnell who Grimes and others Tuesday said “cares only about himself,” time to send someone to Washington who will “put Kentucky first.”
The enthusiastic crowd was treated to a video message on a giant 25-by-12 foot video screen from former President Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to carry Kentucky in a presidential race. Clinton said not only Kentucky but the entire country needs people like Grimes who will work across party lines “for the sake of the country.”
“This campaign will be long and hard,” Clinton said. “But you can win it. You can win it for Kentucky, for your children.”
Grimes was preceded by introductions of former Democratic governors and current constitutional officers and a speech by Gov. Steve Beshear, who chimed in on one of the campaign’s themes: that after 28 years of McConnell, “it is time for a change. If there was ever a time, it is now.”
Beshear, who has in the past feuded with Grimes’ father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, has said he will campaign for and raise money for Grimes. Several members of Beshear’s administration, including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, were also on hand to show support.
Democratic state House Speaker Greg Stumbo vowed that Democrats “stand united as a party behind Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign.”
But even Clinton was upstaged by Grimes’ 83-year-old grandmother, Elsie Case, who starred with Grimes’ other grandmother in a celebrated 2011 campaign ad when Grimes ran for Secretary of State and is in a 2013 web video the campaign is running.
Case was introduced by Grimes’ sister Alissa Todd as “the woman Mitch McConnell should fear the most.”
Case asked the crowd: “What rhymes with Mitch?” and then waited for their response: “It’s time for a switch,” echoing a line from the web video the campaign is running.
Promising she will “walk with (Grimes) every step of the way” along the campaign, Case introduced her granddaughter while Pineville singer Chris Rose sang “Kentucky Woman.”
Grimes made a staged entrance from a side street walking up a sidewalk surrounded by hundreds of cheering supporters.
She delivered an 18-minute speech, echoing themes she’s used in the past: McConnell’s votes against raising the minimum wage while his personal wealth increased; votes against women’s issues; support for tax policies Grimes said encourages employers to move Kentucky jobs out of the country. And she said McConnell “has clearly shown he cares only about himself.”
After each of the examples, Grimes said McConnell should “Stop now” to cheers from the crowd. She said he has blocked votes in the Senate over 400 times. “While Sen. McConnell might be thriving, Kentucky is just barely surviving.”
Grimes said, McConnell, who at one time vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president, had done it “for the worst possible reason: out of spite.”
She said Washington is infected with a “disease of dysfunction ... and after 30 years, Mitch McConnell is at the center of it.”
Mindful of McConnell’s attempts to pin her to Obama and his environmental policies, both of which are very unpopular in conservative, coal-mining Kentucky, Grimes said she doesn’t always agree with the president.
“He’s wrong on coal,” she said, adding that “there are things in the Affordable Care Act which we need and must fix. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put the good of our people ahead of the bad that comes from acting petty and small.”
In the crowd were a dozen miners from the Prestonsburg area. One, Larry Mead, a registered Democrat, said Grimes can persuade eastern Kentucky miners that she supports coal.
Indeed, Grimes said in her speech that she will never forget Kentucky’s miners or Kentucky families.
Mead said Grimes “is someone who’s going to work with the president (on coal issues). Working against him sure hasn’t worked.”
But Mead conceded Grimes still has some work to do to persuade all the miners in southeastern Kentucky that a Democrat might work on their behalf in Washington.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, a staunch coal supporter, said Grimes “will do good on coal. People will base their decision on facts and not on the rhetoric of the other side.”
Marcus Woodward, former chairman of the Boyd County Democratic Party, said Grimes is young, energetic and articulate, and can “offer her solutions which will involve working with people (McConnell) won’t work with.”
Like Clinton, Woodward said it will be a long, hard campaign to unseat McConnell, but he thinks Grimes can do it.
Given Tuesday’s event, she’s off to a better second start than her July 1 announcement. Longtime Democratic activist Terry McBrayer said it was the largest announcement crowd he’d ever seen.
But Grimes has yet to name a campaign chair. Tuesday, campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said one has been hired but she wouldn’t name the person, however, saying the campaign planned to make a major staffing announcement after the Fancy Farm Picnic this weekend.
Norton said the campaign chair is from Kentucky. Asked if that person might be someone already publicly working with the campaign, she said, “Potentially.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.