Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Race of the Day- Kentucky U.S. Senate

Kentucky U.S. Senate

84 Days Until Election Day
Status: Republican Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Republican

Last year, a Democrat defeated the incumbent Republican Governor of Kentucky and this quickly had people wondering "is Mitch McConnell next?" They have been asking that for a long time now. First elected to the Senate in an upset over an opponent in 1984, McConnell has  been targeted for defeat every six years since. Having now been his party's Leader in the U.S. Senate for 14 years and heavily associated with his focus on the ins and outs of Congress, he has not exactly been a lovable figure at home. Democrats have despised him and even many conservatives have been openly distrustful. Nonetheless, he has beaten all comers and has mastered Kentucky politics for the most part nearly as well as he might have the Senate rules. Democrats will claim again this year that they can beat him and point to national fundraising figures and whatnot, but it would take the equivalent of a political earthquake to actually beat him.
For one thing, a Senate race is different than one for Governor. Many conservatives in Kentucky are still registered as Democrats and have proven far more willing to vote that way for state and local elections than in sending someone to Washington. The last Democrat to win a Senate race in the Bluegrass State was a longtime incumbent back in 1992. At the same time, Democrats have still won almost all of the Gubernatorial contests. There is no doubt that Kentucky has already been conservative and has voted heavily Republican at the federal level for several cycles now. It is also not exactly a wealthy state leading it to be even more solid in the Trump populist era. With only Louisville as the one major bastion of urban liberalism in the state, it is likely to be one of Donald Trump's strongest this year.
In order for McConnell to lose, a lot of Trump voters will have to skip voting for him. McConnell seems unlikely to let that happen. He could probably have never imagined that he would be faced with being the top Congressional ally of Donald Trump, but has done what he has had to do to try to carry legislative water and provide political cover for the current President. One important area has been the way that McConnell has helped guarantee Senate confirmation of so many judicial nominations. Democrats are still bitter for the way he held up a Barack Obama nomination during the 2016 election campaign, that ultimately got to be filled by Trump. McConnell sometimes expresses disagreement with some of the wild things said or proposed by Trump in a calm collected matter but has maintained a relatively good relationship with the White House. For one thing, it is notable that McConnell is a rare political figure, even in the Republican Party, that Trump has not fired back at for disagreeing with him. It might perhaps help both men that the Senator's wife Elaine Chao is the Secretary of Transportation. Being a Cabinet spouse is nothing new to McConnell as Chao was Secretary of Labor during all eight years of the George W. Bush Administration.
Many on the right feel that McConnell is not a movement conservative (putting aside the way he largely built the Republican Party in Kentucky when it was much smaller) or too willing to compromise (as is the job requirement for any Senate leader.) In 2014, he faced a serious challenge on the right from Matt Bevin  but still won handily. Facing a much younger and highly touted female Secretary of State, he also won, by 15 points. Bevin would go on to become Governor in 2015 with McConnell's support, but he proved very controversial in office and was ousted in 2019, and McConnell was likely not too surprised or concerned. This cycle, McConnell faced no serious primary opposition and took 83 percent against a field of much lesser known names. He was more of an issue perhaps in a West Virginia Senate primary in 2018 when one of the candidates went after him on the airwaves and referred to him (for reasons not worth getting into) as "Cocaine Mitch." McConnell and his allies have since embraced the moniker.
There was a spirited primary on the Democrat side for this seat which came to an end in June and nominated another nationally touted female opponent for McConnell. None of the Democrats who had recently won statewide office in Kentucky ran (a woman who served a term as Auditor in the 1980s took just 2 percent) as many in the party gravitated toward the candidacy of Amy McGrath. A veteran of 20 years in the Marine Corps, where she was a fighter pilot, McGrath ran for Congress in 2018 in a district that was held by a Republican, but had formerly been a good one for Democrats. Her husband, also a former military officer is a lifelong Republican. After a major primary victory, she was looked at a possible victor in a strong year for Democrats. Still, the Republican won by three points.
Following the example of some other Democrats, McGrath used this experience in a competitive House loss to take her political ambitions statewide and run for the Senate. Her campaign launch produced a big splash, but like some past McConnell opponents, she made some gaffes and there was a sense that her campaign had some internal problems. McConnell's well organized political machine was quick to pounce. As the primary drew closer, Charles Booker, a young African-American State Representative emerged with momentum. Many liberal activists in Kentucky and around the country seemed to shrug off McGrath and went instead to Booker, who was also aided by the movement in Louisville surrounding racial justice issues in the aftermath of the Breonna Taylor killing. To many, it looked like Booker would win the primary, offering a stunning rebuke to the previously thought of McGrath juggernaut and Republicans were happy with the prospect of facing a more liberal candidate without a decorated military record. However, early voting via mail has been a big part of 2020 for obvious reasons, and McGrath must have already had a lot of votes in the bank before the homestretch. After the counting, she won 45-43. Without a major increase in early voting, she likely would have lost.
Democrats are seemingly united in Kentucky now behind McGrath, but the fact is that her managing to survive the primary aside, she has not exactly been an all-star on the campaign trail. Right now, the polls seem a bit all over the place. Some show McConnell up by a very narrow margin while others show him with a solid lead. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The incumbent is probably ahead by single digits, but he is ahead to be sure. Even in the polls where McConnell cannot reach 50 percent should be analyzed with the understanding that there are a bunch of right-wing voters in Kentucky who really do not like McConnell and may not be willing to vouch for him in a poll, but will vote for him at the end of the day against a candidate who will be portrayed as a liberal and a "national Democrat."

McConnell's recent victories have tended to be somewhat larger, both in a primary and general election, than polls predict. He is likely returning to the Senate and may not have to carry water for Donald Trump anymore. That could also mean though a loss of the Senate majority and that would probably not be welcomed news.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

5 D (2 Safe, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup) 
8 R (2 Safe, 2 Likely, 3 Lean, 1 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

40 Democrats (35 holdovers, 2 Safe, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)
38 Republicans (30 holdovers, 2 Safe, 2 Likely, 3 Lean, 1 Tossup)


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