CALHOUN, Ky. -- Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes looked out at the butter-colored senior center, packed and vibrating. "As I walked in," she said coolly, "I thought, 'man, this would cost the Koch brothers a fortune."
Word had leaked that the campaign of Grimes' opponent, GOP Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell, was offering to pay the expenses of volunteers to contribute to "an enthusiastic atmosphere." To her own hundred-strong crowd in a coal-country town with a population of 763 -- cars lined up on the grassy shoulders outside, seniors rising readily to their feet to cheer -- Grimes spelled it out: "I don't have to pay you to be here."
"I don't have to pay you to be here."'
Grimes has never lacked for confidence, and you need it to try to take down a wily Senate veteran. But it helps that the news has been unusually good for the long-shot candidate lately. Kentucky's two largest newspapers have endorsed her. (The Courier-Journal praised her "intelligence, energy and clear potential"; The Lexington Herald-Leader mostly offered a stinging assessment of McConnell.) Polls have shown the race to be deadlocked, which is hardly good news for the man who has been in the Senate for 30 years. And two of the brightest stars in the Democratic firmament, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, are headed to Kentucky this week to campaign for Grimes in the home stretch. Former President Bill Clinton will also appear Thursday in Louisville to campaign for Grimes.
There was no denying the "enthusiastic atmosphere" in Calhoun, in a crowd heavy with lonely Democratic activists who had long wished to kick McConnell out. When Grimes said the Koch brothers were practically McConnell's family, some shouted, "That's right!" When Grimes shouted, "He can buy the airwaves, but can he buy you?" the crowd was ready with their deep-throated "no."
Grimes needs their enthusiasm, and their turnout muscle, if she is to upend the conventional wisdom that McConnell will hold on, and with him Republican control of the Senate. She has clearly understood McConnell's unpopularity to be the core logic of her campaign, even as Kentuckyians might worry about giving up his long-fought-for status in the Senate. "Seniority might be worth something," Grimes told the crowd, "if it weren't up for sale to the highest bidder."
Jamie Whitten, a retired registered nurse, couldn't remember the last time Mitch McConnell had campaigned in these parts -- she vaguely remembered him attending a banquet in the region. "Living in Western Kentucky, you feel left out," she said. As for Grimes, Whitten said, "I wanted to jump up and down and turn cartwheels."
Marty Owen, a compliance officer with Kentucky Fair Contracting, a labor union, has been volunteering with the campaign since day one. "She's running a close campaign against Bill Clinton on speeches," he declared. "She can fire up a crowd." Owen's father-in-law was once the campaign manager for Wendell Ford, Kentucky's last Democratic senator, who served for 24 years. Grimes had inspired the eighty-four-year-old to canvass nearby Beech Grove with a golf cart. "He keeps asking me for signs," marveled Owen.
"I think he's going to be surprised, Mitch McConnell," said Owen. "I think he's already surprised."
Cozy Chappell, a magistrate judge in Muhlenberg County and a local contact for the campaign, was more measured. "For the first time in my memory we have a credible candidate, a very viable candidate," she said. "I see a lot of enthusiasm for Alison as a candidate. I don't know if that will generate into people going to the polls. I think people are tired, they're depressed, they think nothing's going to change. They're beaten down. They just don't believe in the system anymore.
"But if they don't vote, nothing is going to change," she added. "And if they're unhappy now, they'll remain unhappy."