The state of Kentucky has taken the term March Madness to its logical, and literal, extreme. The University of Kentucky’s and the University of Louisville’s national title aspirations and arch-rivalry have become an honest-to-God political issue in the high-profile Senate race between Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Questions have been raised about loyalty, authenticity, and even NCAA compliance. The story was front-page news in the state this week. “This will be the most memorable thing to most people in the campaign so far,” one Kentucky Democratic operative told me. “Seems crazy, but it’s true.”
It all threatens to come to a head late Friday night, when the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats—the 2013 and 2012 national champions, respectively—meet in the Sweet Sixteen. And the person to whom it could all do the most damage is none other than McConnell. Which is nobody’s fault but his own.
Joe Sonka, news editor of Louisville’s LEO Weekly, has owned this story, and his summary is a good place to start. On Tuesday morning, Sonka noted that a web video Team McConnell had put up Monday night contained a rather troubling gaffe: Right after showing a Louisville player dunking, it showed Kentucky players celebrating—except, the happy blue-uniformed hoopsters were actually Duke players toasting their 2010 national championship. And Duke, you’ll recall—you do recall, right?—defeated Kentucky in the 1992 Final Four via one of the most famous shots in basketball history, the Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner full-court heave. If you think Kentucky fans have forgotten this, you are probably not a college basketball fan.
Sonka, just the tenth person to view the video, made hay of it. (He also posted the video on YouTube.) McConnell’s campaign promptly took the video down, saying they were “horrified”—like all decent people, they hate Duke—and replaced it with a video in which Kentucky’s Julius Randle replaced the joyous Blue Devils. The problem now was that this was potentially an NCAA violation, since the organization bars the use of active athletes’ images for commercial or political reasons. As top Kentucky sports-radio host Matt Jones complained, “The week of the U of L game, the compliance [de]partment spent the week talking to the NCAA.” This was the gravest offense, Jones insisted: “The Duke thing was a better story, but Kentucky fans are smart. As soon as they did that, every Kentucky fan immediately knew that was a violation.” (Actually, Kentucky says it wasn’t one, but they did send the McConnell campaign a cease-and-desist, and the McConnell campaign took that video down, too, and says it also reached out to U of L over the issue.)
Even Matt Bevin, McConnell’s Tea Party primary challenger, is getting in on the action: During tonight’s game, his campaign will air a sardonic ad featuring a cardboard cutout of McConnell wearing a Duke jersey.
Before going further, it helps to understand a few things about Kentucky, politics, and basketball—“three of my favorite things,” as 2010 Republican Senate candidate Trey Grayson, now director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, told me. First: The state of Kentucky is college basketball-mad. UK has the second-most national titles, eight, of any school. Louisville is the strongest TV market for college basketball this season—for the twelfth straight season. Louisville’s coach, Rick Pitino, won a championship with Kentucky in the ‘90s; Kentucky’s coach, John Calipari, is Pitino’s protégé. (Since you asked, Pitino and Calipari are both Democrats, which, yes, has been an issue.)
It’s sports as bloodsport, and it bleeds into politics. In 2010, for instance, Grayson’s campaign made an ad highlighting the fact that his rival, Paul, had gone to medical school at—wait for it—Duke. “We did that tongue-in-cheek,” Grayson told me. “It was to have it be a little funny, remind people Rand went to Duke and I went to UK for grad school, but the biggest thing was to build our email list.” He added, “We got thousands of emails. It worked.” Stephen Voss, a political science professor at Kentucky, told me: “Any serious politician would avoid trying to seem like a partisan in terms of one basketball team or another. It might be better to have an association with President Obama or George W. Bush than to be clearly on the side of one of these teams versus the other.” Rule-proving exceptions are politicians who represent specific areas: Louisville’s and Lexington’s congressmen playfully sparred this week.
The rough, only somewhat self-fulfilling stereotype posits the blue team as Red America, and vice-versa. Kentucky, a gigantic Southeastern Conference land-grant school in relatively small Lexington, is generally perceived as having the more conservative fanbase; Louisville, based in Kentucky’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, is for Democrats. As with all stereotypes, it is a little bit true: Louisville’s congressman is a Democrat while Lexington’s is a Republican, for instance. But mostly this dichotomy is as complicated as the politics of the state itself—a former border state that last voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1996 and has Senators McConnell and Paul, but also elected a Democratic governor and House of Representatives, and contains other Blue America markers, such as not being a right-to-work state.
“The rest of the state views Louisville the way the state views New York City,” said Matt Rutherford, author of SB Nation’s Card Chronicle blog. “It’s two groups of people who don’t really understand each other very well. People from around the state think Louisville people think they’re stupid. Louisville people think people from around the state”—here he paused—“are stupid.”
Plainly McConnell himself did not make this mistake. In an email, his press secretary Alison Moore blamed the admaker—“obviously the web ad vendor has become so accustomed to watching national championship celebrations in the bluegrass state that they made a mistake with one of the images.” And there have been at least two other basketball-related Kentucky politics gaffes in the past couple weeks: When Grimes unveiled her bracket, it had Kentucky losing to Wichita State last weekend (perhaps because that way she could avoid having to choose between the Cats and the Cards in the Sweet Sixteen) and Louisville falling to Florida in the final game; and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has taken flack this week for naming Friday “Cardinal Red Day,” despite the fact that an estimated third of Louisville residents are UK fans.
Perhaps needless to say, Moore directed me to Grimes’ bracket in her email. Moore dodged one of my questions, though: whom is the senator rooting for? In fact, he has “studiously avoided taking a position on the game,” The New York Times reported today.
Which would be no more than run-of-the-mill political pandering, but for one likely fact: McConnell is a Louisville fan. A graduate of both universities, the circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly suggests that McConnell bleeds Cardinal red, not Wildcat blue. U of L, not UK, is where he went to college. U of L, not UK, is home to the McConnell Center, a civic education center, the Chao Auditorium—named for McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, Bush’s Labor Secretary—and the McConnell-Chao archives. Louisville, not Lexington, is home to McConnell himself. In 2011, in the midst of conference realignment, McConnell reportedly lobbied (unsuccessfully) for Louisville to join the Big 12 instead of West Virginia. I heard tell that when Louisville used to come to D.C. for its annual match-up against former Big East rival Georgetown, McConnell would attend, rocking Cardinal gear. Most damningly, when Kentucky came to the White House for its post-championship visit two years ago, McConnell didn’t join them. When Louisville showed up for its celebration last year, McConnell was there.
The way this to-do is being used against McConnell is to paint him as having lost track of his roots. The Bevin and Grimes campaigns have both said it is an instance of McConnell’s being “out of touch.” They note that much of his campaign team comes from out of state. It is part of a broader critique: That McConnell—a 20-year Senate veteran who has spent the past couple years scrambling to seem respectable to the Tea Party-leaning voters who catapulted the state’s undeniable political star, Paul, into the Senate—has gone native in Washington. “It fits into a narrative the Grimes campaign was already trying to tell about him being outside the day-to-day concerns of Kentucky voters,” Voss said.
But that’s not what the flap actually says about McConnell. These were plainly unforced errors. But they resulted from McConnell trying to be something he’s not—namely, a Wildcat fan.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a politician simply to take a side when it comes to a heated intra-state sports rivalry. Most famously, perhaps, is that Rudy Giuliani is a Yankees fan, plain and simple. (By contrast, in 1999 Hillary Clinton, carpetbagging for the Senate, dodged the Yankees-Mets question on “60 Minutes.”)
McConnell’s sin here isn’t losing touch with his roots. It’s failing to be honest about them. And this is the sports analogue of the expedient political shape-shifting he has employed to try to keep the Tea Party at exactly arm’s length. If he were simply an out-and-proud Cardinals fan, Kentucky voters, even the majority who will be rooting for UK tonight, would at least know where he stands. More importantly, they would know that he stands somewhere. Anyway, if he were simply an out-and-proud Cardinals fan, not even a “web ad vendor” would have tried to put a Kentucky player into his ad.