Nearly a decade into my own political recovery, I’m still confronted by incredulous outsiders who can’t understand how a Jewish pischer like me could get elected to statewide office in an inner notch of the Bible Belt.
It’s easy, I explain. There’s only one state-sanctioned religion in our Commonwealth. And it’s University of Kentucky basketball.
Indeed, it is nearly impossible to underestimate the spiritual connection between the Bluegrass State and its iconic college cager squad. We have a diverse and sometimes deeply divided populace, but from November through March Madness—and often during off-season recruiting—we are a united, interdependent community: fans who might diverge strongly on all matters policy or lifestyle join forces in ardent reverence of the beloved Wildcats.
And if there’s a Josephus of the Big Blue Creed—the zealous scribe chronicling the faith of hoops in the new millennium—it’s a 36-year-old recovering lawyer named Matt Jones.
Jones is the founder and proprietor of Kentucky Sports Radio, a Web site that promotes itself as “University of Kentucky basketball, football and recruiting news brought to you in the most ridiculous manner possible.” But while Jones’ humorous irreverence permeates his reporting, his signature is an unabashed support for the home team—in stark contrast to the purportedly “objective” and often hypercritical treatment of Kentucky sports by the mainstream media. In a state with a near-consensus visceral contempt for the self-righteous interference of outsiders and elitists, Jones has emerged as the everyman champion of our poor and often embattled state’s great source of pride, the one arena in which we can, with a straight face, claim that we lead the nation.
It’s no wonder that Jones’ web site experience has grown into a multi-media empire. Launched in 2005, Jones secured statewide attention as the Twitter-centric Woodward and Bernstein of the 2009 extortion scandal centered around the personal behavior of the Big Blue Nation’s most detested apostate: Rick Pitino, the coach who brought a national championship to UK in 1996, but left and later returned to lead the in-state arch-rival University of Louisville Cardinals to their own NCAA title.
Today, the Web site attracts an average of 250,000 hits, and surpasses half a million on major sports news days. Jones has leveraged his devoted audience into a regular television gig on a local station, providing color commentary for a variety of Kentucky sports events, and most prominently, since 2010, hosting the most listened-to radio show in the state, heard on 30 stations every weekday across Kentucky.
It’s on that last media platform where Jones may have just shaken up one of the most highly scrutinized political races in the nation.
For months, Jones issued regular on-air challenges to both U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and his challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, to on his radio program. While Jones had announced that both campaigns had tentatively agreed to join him separately, many observers—including this one—were skeptical: The two notoriously tightly-scripted candidates would be taking an unusual risk by joining the unpredictable and iconoclastic broadcaster in a live interview.
But on September 25, with a barrage of polls consistently showing her trailing the incumbent, Grimes took the leap of faith, and joined Jones for a spirited, 20-minute session. Her reviews were generally positive: having undergone persistent criticism from political reporters for dodging tough questioning, Grimes gave perhaps her most substantive interview, defending the science of climate change, supporting the concept of marriage equality, favoring the closing of the gun show loophole, and even demonstrating an openness to discuss decriminalizing marijuana—all courageous positions in our socially conservative Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, while the McConnell campaign took every opportunity to attack Grimes for her candor on the show, the candidate still refused to appear—provoking nearly two-weeks of on-air criticism by Jones and his crew for cowardice and failure to honor his campaign’s promise.
Then, this Monday, an independent consortium of major local media released its widely-respected Bluegrass Poll which shocked the body politic by showing Grimes with a two point lead, a six point swing in her favor over the past month. The McConnell campaign instantly classified the survey as an outlier, and even though Grimes’ deeply respected pollster Mark Mellman had recently released a poll with a similar margin, it’s far too early for Grimes to start measuring her Senate drapes.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but yesterday, at the same time the Grimes campaign appeared to rise from his prematurely-labeled death, McConnell decided to make an unannounced call into the Kentucky Sports Radio program. While Jones was caught completely off-guard, he managed to conduct a spirited, substantive interview (listen here) challenging McConnell’s ambivalence to climate science and opposition to gay marriage, and, most effectively, exposing how the Senator’s desire to repeal ObamaCare by “root and branch” could jeopardize health insurance for the nearly 500,000 Kentuckians who enrolled over the past year.
The senior Senator was, as usual, highly disciplined, avoiding the substance of some questions with one-liner talking points. But atypically—and in a manner that has been widely panned over the past 24 hours—McConnell seemed emotional and combative, skewering Jones for his interviewing style and for being an “Obama enthusiast.”
The latter charge, of course, is fightin’ words in a Commonwealth that has become manifestly red in federal elections, where the President’s deep unpopularity has made him the singular focus of McConnell campaign. Jones tells me that he’s the first to admit his politics: “I certainly lean left. I wouldn’t shy away from being called liberal.”
But unlike Michael Jordan, who avoided risking his brand by talking politics—famously stating “Republicans buy sneakers, too”—Jones believes that because this campaign matters so much, for the state and the country, it was important to interrupt the usual sports programming to give his audience a window on a campaign of such great import. And despite his own political leanings, Jones is proud to have questioned both candidates in a tough and fair way: “I don’t think that people who were listening to the interviews would have known what side I am on…. I’ve never tried to convert my listeners to my point of view. I bring up issues that generate discussion, and let the audience decide who’s right and wrong.”
More than $100 million is expected to be spent on the McConnell/Grimes battle, most of which is being allocated to an overwhelming avalanche of 30-second negative ads, which by election day will likely only serve to blur any substantive issues and bewilder the typical Kentuckian. So is it possible that a few episodes of unscripted candor and revelation on a sports radio program could provide a moment of clarity for enough undecided voters to swing the election? Perhaps. If it does, Matt Jones, the Big Blue Nation’s top cheerleader, could prove the game changer in control of the U.S. Senate.