This past week we interviewed Sam Youngman concerning the Kentucky Senate Race. Youngman is a national political writer, spending ten years in Washington, D.C. before moving back home to Kentucky and joining the Lexington Herald-Leader. In 2012 Youngman was a correspondent for Reuters where he was on the campaign trail with presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in addition to spending over three years as a White House correspondent for The Hill covering Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Youngman, too, has covered countless House and Senate races, and thus we wished to capture his views on the Kentucky Senate race.
Below, find a portion of our interview. While many of these topics have been discussed in previous blog posts, Youngman adds a journalistic perspective.
1. From a journalistic standpoint, what is the least covered aspect of the Kentucky Senate Race as of now?
Honestly, I think it is education. This race has become dominated by coal and jobs. Both of those are important issues but they are not the only issues. Really what we are seeing here is a nakedly political race. Most times we claim to talk about the issues, but that’s not what we’re really doing here. What we are seeing is both sides using issues to frame the politics the way they want. For Senator McConnell, that means coal: using coal to tie Alison Lundergan Grimes to President Obama and to national Democrats like Senate Leader Harry Reid. For Alison Lundergan Grimes that means taking a comment that Senator McConnell says about jobs and trying to turn that into a comment on his thirty years in Washington and the current economic state of Kentucky. So you see we aren’t really talking about solutions on these issues, we are talking about who is worse on these issues.
2. You mentioned Senator McConnell trying to tie Secretary Grimes to Democratic leaders in Washington like President Obama and Harry Reid. While we have heard this several times, do you think that Grimes has been successful in her effort to distance herself from Obama and Reid?
I think from what we saw on the primary night the answer is ‘no’. But that is just for now, that is why we have campaigns so you can try and change these narratives. But what we saw primary night was that in coal-producing counties where voters had been inundated for months by advertising that made that effort to tie Grimes to Obama and Harry Reid and on primary night in a closed Democratic primary, Alison Lundergan Grimes really underperformed in a number of counties. In some places, close to 40% of the people voted for another Democrat even though none of the other Democrats put any money into the race. So I would say that early on the numbers would indicate McConnell has had some success with that strategy. What we have seen from Grimes since the primary, and really since she has gotten in the race, is a concerted effort portray herself as an independent voice. It is too early to tell if she is having any success in that push back. But, I think given the long period she was in the race without really introducing herself on a mass scale to voters, I think it is going to be an uphill battle for her to put daylight between her and the President.
3. One of our blog posts deals with when a candidate takes a position on an issue or not. So for McConnell, we wrote about how he was fervently against Obamacare, but then after the success of Kynect, was forced to rethink some of his statements. Recently you have written about Grimes not taking a clear stance on immigration funding…do you think that this is an issue which is salient enough in Kentucky to where she will be forced to take a stance?
Oh, I think so. It is a crisis that is getting national attention. Just this morning the McConnell campaign put out a release noting the different positions that Secretary Grimes has taken on the crisis since we started asking about it. I was really struck a couple weeks ago when we asked Secretary Grimes about the Presidential request for an emergency supplemental funding bill to address the crisis and she declined to take a position. But, it also seemed like she didn’t really know what we were asking. She kept referring to the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill. So I was really struck when she wasn’t more engaged on that issue, considering what big news it’s been. But I think immigration is going to continue to be one of the dominate, hot button issues in this country until there is a comprehensive reform passed, or until it is dealt with, it will continue to be this hot button issue…and I don’t know when that will be. Chuck Todd was here the other night and he said ‘look at the calendar, when do you see immigration getting done? This election year, the next election year, or in 2016 when everyone is running for President?’ So I think yes, it will be a big issue this year and a big issue going forward.
Do you think that voters are currently upset with Grimes for not taking a stance on immigration? Or are they even aware that she hasn’t?
You know, that is the big question: how much are people paying attention? My feeling has always been voters aren’t making up their mind during the spring/summer, but they are forming general impressions. If a general impression, especially for somebody young and their opponent is trying to push the idea that they don’t have the experience or the policy knowledge to do the job, and I feel that if the general impression confirms either of those things, then it becomes a problem. You know, polling conducted in the spring showed that as much as a third of voters didn’t know enough about Secretary Grimes to make an opinion. That is a danger zone for a candidate because that means not only have they not defined themselves with voters, but they have also given their opponent the opportunity to define them for them…and that is a real dangerous place to be. I do think that as we move into the fall campaign it will be on her to not only rebut those notions but really prove that she is capable of doing the job.
4. Do you think that Grimes, as a challenger, is different from McConnell’s previous challengers? Does she have an advantage of any sort over the failed challengers of the past?
I do. I think that when you are running against someone who has been in office for thirty years in a time when American distain for Washington and Washington institutions is an all-time high, being sort of a fresh face is an unmeasurable advantage. Really successful politicians, however, can turn an advantage into a weakness, and I think we’ll see Senator McConnell do that. One of his campaign lines is ‘my opponent will say she is a fresh face, but she is a fresh face for the status quo.’ I’m not sure how effective that will be, but I do think that is a bar any young candidate has to clear.
5. What is it then that is McConnell’s biggest advantage aside from incumbency?
His greatest advantage is that he lives for races like this. A close race, with his back against the wall, this is Mitch McConnell’s idea of Christmas. He is the guy that lives for the fight….and I think Alison Grimes is going to give him one.
So you’re saying that he does well under pressure?
I am. I mean if you look at his numbers throughout the course of his career, he has never really been what you would call ‘beloved’. He is a survivor. It is races that are in the margin of error are where he really excels. I think one of the reasons they are so confident right now is that if you look at the moderate district Senate races, Democrats don’t have a problem getting to where Alison Grimes is getting— mid-to-high 40s, no problem. It’s getting over that that is the problem, and I have to believe that right now with the way the electorate has been trending, the problems that national Democrats are having, especially beginning and ending at the White House, are creating an environment that is favorable to McConnell. But, I come back to that it is not just Obama that people are mad at in Washington, it is all of Washington, and that includes Senator McConnell.
6. Our last question is this: come November, will it be an issue that matters most to voters or will it be straight partisanship, like we touched on earlier?
There is what is known as an ‘October-Surprise’ in just about every election. I always about this point in a race I laugh myself thinking I’ve got such a good handle on the race, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that there is a good chance something will happen that none of us see coming that could dramatically alter the contours of the race. But if the current trend lines hold, I think what the race is about will tell you who won. If it is a referendum on Barack Obama, then Mitch McConnell wins a sixth term. If it is a referendum on Mitch McConnell, I won’t say that Alison Lundergan Grimes definitely wins, but I would say that favors her. Like I said, this is a nakedly political race—whoever is better at framing the debate will win this race.