Alison Lundergan Grimes, the nation’s youngest woman serving as secretary of state, is going after a very big fish indeed: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And poll after poll shows her running even or ahead of the most powerful Republican in the Senate. This race is on everyone’s radar. McConnell’s approval ratings are abysmal, and he just limped through the worst primary performance of his career. A creature of Washington, he’s made a career of blocking legislation that would improve the lives of working families, especially women — voting against the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and more. As Alison says, “If doctors told Sen. McConnell he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it.” Well, McConnell may finally have met his match. EMILY’s List caught up with Alison to talk about her campaign and the differences between her and the obstructionist once dubbed “the Darth Vader of the Senate.”
What made you decide to take on McConnell, the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate?
This is a race that the people of Kentucky brought to me. As Kentucky’s only female constitutional officer and the youngest female secretary of state in the nation, I’ve worked diligently to put the people of our state first — uniting Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But unfortunately, Washington is not working for Kentucky, and Kentuckians are tired of the gridlock. And for nearly 30 years, Mitch McConnell has been at the center of that dysfunction. The “Dr. of No” is a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington, D.C., and they’re looking for someone who will reach across the aisle and put people before partisanship. That’s what this race is all about.
What’s at stake in this election?
This race is about more than just party control. It’s about two very different visions for the future — one that has held Kentucky and the nation back for nearly three decades, and one that wants to move us forward. One that sends women to the back of line by telling them, “You don’t deserve equal pay for equal work” — and mine, which says we will put women at the front of line, that women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that won’t just be a talking point. It’s the difference between someone who has only been looking out for his own job vs. someone who wants to look out for everyone’s job. What’s at stake is whether Kentucky actually moves forward to where we should and deserve to be, or whether we will continue to be held back, as Mitch McConnell has done to us for 30 years.
What do you see as your greatest strength in this campaign?
I believe our greatest strength is the people of Kentucky. We have put them at the forefront of this campaign on every issue. We always put their interests ahead of partisan politics. For the past 30 years, Mitch McConnell has failed to lead on issues that are important to Kentuckians, especially Kentucky women. We’ve been in this race nearly a year now. We’ve withstood millions of dollars of negative, nasty attacks leveled by Mitch McConnell and his special interest allies. But the people of Kentucky keep saying over and over again, “this election is not up for sale, and we will not be bought.” According to The New York Times, this is the #1 Senate race in the country likely to go from Republican to Democratic hands, and 18 polls deep we are where no one has been before: running even or ahead of the Senate minority leader. And that’s in spite of all of his negative campaigning.
Do you have any thoughts on Eric Cantor’s loss in Virginia?
What we saw in Virginia shows what happens regardless of party when you’ve been in Washington, D.C., too long, and lost touch with your constituents and put your job ahead of the millions of Americans who are struggling. The American people are tired of the dysfunction and gridlock they see in Washington, DC. They’re tired of those who champion partisan politics instead of putting the people of this nation first – which is exactly what we’ve seen in Mitch McConnell.
Describe what you are up against —outside spending, personal wealth …
There is no shortage of outside dollars at work in this race — but we’ve stood strong in spite of the onslaught. Mitch McConnell saw what happened to Tom Daschle [former Senate majority leader and Democrat from South Dakota] and has been preparing ever since. We have the hearts and minds and
hard work of thousands of Kentuckians, and of millions more across the U.S. who are with us to make a difference. He is running a campaign based on partisan politics, while we are running one based on the people of this state. Our grassroots momentum is one of our greatest strengths against the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump, and the tide unleashed by Citizens United. We are harnessing the momentum — and it’s showing in our polling and in the work we’ve been able to do to bring all 120 Kentucky counties into our fundraising effort, with an average donation of $25. The people of Kentucky are the voice of this campaign … the 18-year-old who is excited to cast his first vote for someone who believes college students should be able to refinance student loan debt, while Mitch McConnell stood in the way of that bill … the mom who rises at 6 in the morning to feed her baby and worries about how to provide for her youngster during the 16-day government shutdown that Mitch McConnell paved the way for … the grandparents who see Mitch McConnell wanting to take Kentucky backwards by turning Medicare into vouchers and privatizing Social Security, vs. someone who wants to strengthen and protect Medicare and Social Security. These are the people who are helping us beat the odds and go up against the millions Mitch McConnell is using to try to buy his way back to Washington, DC.
It’s 2020 and you’re running for re-election. What do you hope to be campaigning on?
I like that optimism! But we’ve got five months of hard work ahead. My hope is when I am fortunate enough to go back to D.C. to serve the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we will increase the minimum wage. That is the basis for my jobs plan. I’m the only candidate in this race with a jobs plan that’s about growing the middle class. They deserve better than a U.S. senator who said it’s not his job to bring jobs to the state. They deserve a senator who will carry that burden and make sure all Kentuckians have a good job and a quality way of life. My hope is that we will raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 across the U.S., so that a family of four has the opportunity to not just rise above the poverty level but to live the American dream. I think we will see women across the U.S. benefit, because women are half of the labor force. And I hope we make strides in closing the pay gap. The women of this nation deserve better. They deserve someone who will fight for them — not someone who’s fighting against them every step of the way.
What do reproductive rights mean to you?
I am the third of five daughters — Alissa, Ashley, Alison, Abigail, and Amy. And when I think of reproductive rights, I think of my four sisters and the fact that I would never presume to tell them what to do with their bodies, and I don’t think government should, either. That’s a very personal decision between a woman, her doctor, and her god. And I see a reflection of my sisters in every woman I see across the Commonwealth. I strive every day to make sure they have a voice not just in state government but in the federal government, as well.
What has EMILY’s List support meant for your campaign?
I hope I don’t have to say that in just one word! EMILY’s List endorses candidates who are on the right side of the issues, especially economic issues, as they relate to women and families. I’ve been called an empty dress, a cheerleader, a rubber stamp — but EMILY’s List members reinforce the message that it’s not what’s in the dress that matters, it’s what’s in the head. And I’ll stack this full brain up against Mitch McConnell any day. EMILY’s List has been here to rise up and say women aren’t just supposed to be seen, we will be heard — and when it comes to government, women are having a positive impact and making sure we put people ahead of partisan politics.
What advice would you give to a young woman interested in politics?
The two words that come to mind are “thick skin.” But you must realize that each and every day you are making a difference. The impact may not be immediate, but in the long term I hope the results inspire others, especially other young women, to be a part of the process and make Kentucky and this nation a better place.
It’s the women who are getting things done in the U.S. Senate — people like Barbara Mikulski [D-MD] on Appropriations, Patty Murray [D-WA] with the budget, Debbie Stabenow [D-MI] with the farm bill. In fact, sometimes it seems like women are the only rational voices in the U.S. Senate, the only people coming together across party lines to get things done. And my hope is that Kentucky will break that glass ceiling and elect our first female U.S. senator to add to that bipartisan coalition of women. And by doing that, I hope we inspire other young women and let them know that their voices matter in their community, state, and nation. If I can do this, so can they.
How have the women in your life shaped your political views and leadership style?
I come from a very large family of women, and I learned to find this strong voice early in life in order to get any sweets at dinner table. And as the third of five children, I’m used to operating from the center. My mother and my two amazing grandmothers reinforced the idea that women do make a difference at all levels, from government to education to technology — in every area — and that if you put your mind to it, you will succeed. The idea that women are supposed to be heard rather than seen was instilled in me over and over. Women have inspired me to get where I am today. I look up and see Martha Layne Collins, the first woman governor of Kentucky — she broke that glass ceiling, and knowing she is with me and that together we are going to win this race for Kentucky inspires me.
My grandmother Elsie has come down with a serious lung condition. She says, “Alison, my time is limited, but I know the impact it will have when we win this race together.” That keeps me motivated during the long days. There are so many more positive moments throughout what we’ve embarked on for the last year — and as my grandmother said, as long as that continues and you continue to smile, you keep at it! We are on our way to making history, and that’s because of the women who came before me, who showed me the path and inspire me each and every day.
Who inspires you? Why?
I have to say my grandmothers. One of them, Thelma, is up above watching over and causing more trouble than she did on this earth. When Mitch McConnell can’t tell the difference between a Duke and University of Kentucky jersey … when his campaign manager says he’s “holding his nose” to work for Mitch … when you see him block the student loan bill … I know that’s my grandmother, giving me the strength to fight for all the right reasons — for the future of Kentucky and this nation.
And for Elsie Case, who is still here with me, she says, “We have to make sure we get all the grand-mamas and grand-papas out of their rocking chairs and involved in this campaign — and if we get everyone from grand-mamas to grandbabies involved, we will do what hasn’t been done in 30 years, and that’s remove Mitch McConnell and elect Kentucky’s first female senator, who wants to put Kentuckians first.” I try to match her energy every day — and trust me, she is one feisty grandmother.
Kentuckians are aware of the work I have done on behalf of our citizens — especially women and the military, like establishing the first confidentiality program for victims of domestic violence or passing the first military heroes bill — and they are ready for a U.S. senator who will do that same work and reach across the aisle to bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together. Our people deserve someone who will break through gridlock for the good of the Commonwealth and the nation.