McConnell v. Grimes: What Can You Learn?

When you're running for the first time, you won't have a lot of resources and you'll need to take advantage of what you have. One resource is other campaigns - follow them closely and take away the best of what they do, and avoid the mistakes they make. The point of this series is to help first-time candidates do just that. Shoot me an email if you want help with your race. 

Context of the Race

2014 Cook Index for Kentucky: R+13
Polling when Grimes entered race (July 2013): Toss Up

Alison Lundergan-Grimes informally announced her candidacy against Senator Mitch McConnell on July 1, 2013 after months of speculation that she would challenge the five-term Senator. Grimes was in her first term as Kentucky's Secretary of State, meaning she had won a statewide race already. She is also the daughter of former Democratic state party chairman Jerry Lundergan, who was well known in political circles before Grimes announced her candidacy.

McConnell was first elected as Senator in 1984, and despite a number of close elections has held the seat continuously for 30 years. 

Grimes' Message

In her announcement, Grimes introduced the message that would define her campaign right up through this week, saying about McConnell:

"I will tell you that I was an underdog in the office of Secretary of State race and I am no stranger to being an underdog. (McConnell's) ads are based out of fear of losing his 30 year grip on power." (WDRB Louisville)

and

"We can change how Washington represents Kentucky." (Lexington Herald-Leader)

Grimes talks about change and criticizes McConnell for being in D.C. for too long. Compare that statement to an ad Grimes ran in September of this year:

The messaging is nearly identical. "Thirty years is long enough." 

McConnell's Message

McConnell, in a move that isn't common for incumbents but is common for McConnell, criticized his opponent immediately. Here's a press release sent out on the day of Grimes' announcement :

"Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama's Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas.  The next sixteen months will provide a great opportunity for Kentuckians to contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government rationed health care with someone who works everyday to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas.  Together we've invested a lot to ensure that Kentucky's voice in the U.S. Senate is heard from the front of the line rather than the back-bench and I intend to earn the support to keep it there." (WDRB Louisville)

McConnell has been just as consistent with his messaging - he's been referring to Grimes as "Obama's Kentucky Candidate" since the beginning, and his message hasn't changed a bit over the course of the campaign. Here is a McConnell ad from October of 2014:

Obama, Obama, Obama. McConnell has rarely said "Alison Grimes" without following up with "Barack Obama."

Both candidates have stayed on message throughout the campaign. Grimes has consistently criticized McConnell for having been in the Senate for too long and not delivering for Kentuckians on a variety of issues. And McConnell has been painting Grimes as Obama's best friend from the start. 

So our two messages are this: "Thirty years is long enough" vs. "Obama's Kentucky candidate."

Analysis

What's the difference, then? Both candidates did an admirable job of staying on message. But whose message did voters believe more?

Here are the two areas I think Grimes faltered in this campaign, giving McConnell an edge that should get him a 6th term. 

  1. Grimes failed to distance herself from Obama. She tried, but by the time she began running ads saying "I'm not Barack Obama," McConnell had been saying she WAS Barack Obama long enough that those ads only served to reinforce Mitch's message by making the central theme of the campaign "Is Alison Grimes going to be just like Barack Obama or not?"  Candidates can sometimes distance themselves from the top of their ticket, but Grimes wasn't able to offer anything from her relatively short resume to prove to voters that she could go to D.C. and be a voice independent of Obama and the national Democratic party. 
  2. Grimes made a mistake in June of 2014 by not standing up to her party, making it harder to believe she would be independent of Obama. As she left for a D.C. fundraiser she claimed she would stand up to Harry Reid on Kentucky's pressing issues, particularly the use of coal. As it turned out, a plant at her D.C. fundraiser recorded her speech, and she didn't mention coal once. That story undercut her credibility as an independent voice - and McConnell made sure everyone knew about it through press releases and ads. 

By mid-October, the Grimes/Obama comparison had become the central issue in the campaign.  She was asked whether she voted for Obama and refused to answer the question. An undercover conservative campaign operative, posing as a Grimes voter, interviewed Grimes backers about her support for Obama's policies - and they unanimously believed she would support Obama's policies, she just couldn't say that publicly. 

Here's a screen shot of the google search results for "Alison Grimes" on October 11th, just three weeks before Election Day: 

image via google search

image via google search

Ouch. Try convincing voters you're not going to be like Barack Obama when this is what they're reading about you a few weeks from Election Day.

With help from a few slip ups by Grimes, McConnell made the race about what he wanted it to be about: Grimes & Obama, rather than a referendum on how McConnell had done as Senator for thirty years. 

Takeaways for Your Campaign

Message consistency is vital. Both candidates did a great job of sticking with their message. And remember this for your race - McConnell/Grimes is one of the highest profile races in the country, yet they both chose to stick with one central theme for the entire 16 month long campaign. How much more important is it that you - who will get a half dozen newspaper articles at most - stick to your message? 

Message consistency isn't always enough. Your message also has to connect. People have to believe you. People believe you when they perceive you as authentic and when you show them through your resume and past successes that you can back up what you're claiming. Being an "authentic" candidate isn't something that can be easily faked, either. You need to start by running on the issues that matter to you and revolving the story of your campaign around what you truly care about. 

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