LOUISVILLE – Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday started his personal campaign to elect Democrats in the South and help his party keep control of the U.S. Senate, casting the Republicans as obstructionist and highlighting issues like raising the minimum wag at an event in support of Kentucky’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The 1,100-person fundraiser with Grimes was the first of what is expected to be numerous stops by Clinton in 2014 to states like Kentucky, where President Obama is unpopular. Democrats want Clinton to validate their Senate candidates in 2014 as champions of the middle class the same way the ex-president did for Obama during his 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Clinton’s campaigning will also be an early indication of whether Hillary Clinton can win white working-class voters who have shunned Obama if she runs for president, thereby giving Democrats a chance in 2016 to win states like Kentucky.
“I love Kentucky; you voted for me twice,” the former president said in his speech, referring to his victories here in 1992 and 1996.
Clinton’s campaigning comes as Democrats try to make a breakthrough in the South, where the party’s candidates have struggled for nearly two decades.
In presidential election years, the party can largely ignore the region because they are so strong on the coasts. But this year, five key Senate races are in the South: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate unless they win at least two of these contests.
Enter Clinton. Democratic sources said the ex-president is likely to come to Kentucky again, and that Hillary Clinton will campaign for Grimes as well. Both are likely to stump in the four other Southern states as well, as former President Clinton also won in won Arkansas and Louisiana during his 1996 reelection campaign.
Party strategists say that voters will not necessarily back a Democratic candidate simply because either Clinton endorsed him or her. Rather, they hope campaigning with the ex-president will help Democrat candidates distance themselves from Obama and link themselves to the economic gains of the 1990s.
Grimes has demurred when asked if she wants Obama to campaign with her, but was eager to have Clinton there. Neither Clinton nor Grimes mentioned Obama during their speeches on Tuesday.
“Bill Clinton is still very popular in Kentucky, and this will closely connect her with him instead of President Obama,” said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat, in an interview about Tuesday’s event.
More broadly, Democrats in these Southern states are likely to use the tactics that helped Clinton win in 1996, avoiding more liberal causes and looking for popular issues like the minimum wage that have support among some Republicans.
In her speech, Grimes made no mention of “Obamacare,” despite its successful rollout in Kentucky, immigration reform, or fighting climate change, some of Obama’s top second-term priorities that are controversial ideas here.
“My vision for Kentucky begins and ends with the middle class,” Grimes said.
Clinton did talk about the health care law, to praise Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who was in the audience at the event and has been one of the leading supporters of the law in the country.
But Clinton listed other issues likely to resonate in the South, such as expanding broadband to more rural areas and taking greater steps to make sure veterans get jobs.