Thursday, August 21, 2014

Race of the Day- Kentucky U.S. Senate

75 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

An United States Senator for the past 30 years, and the top Republican in that chamber for the past eight, Mitch McConnell is on the threshold of reaching the pinnacle of his long career and becoming Majority Leader of the Senate. First though, he needs to win his own competitive reelection. If he cannot do so, then the majority for his party may have slipped away regardless. Democrats for the past couple of years have targeted him as potentially vulnerable, despite the strong conservative bent of Kentucky, but the bookish looking McConnell, while not known as a spectacular orator or a backslapping politician, has a reputation for shrewdness and doing what it takes to win. He will have to work hard for a victory this year, but will probably pull it off.

While conservative, McConnell has shown a willingness to work across the aisle in order to advance an agenda. That is pretty much the nature of business in the Senate, especially when your party is in the minority. McConnell received a lot of headlines for working out a budget deal with Vice President Joe Biden not long ago, after negotiations between the Democrat President and the Republican U.S. House Speaker had broken down. Those kind of backroom deals though, in addition to his visible role as the top Senate Republican in Washington have caused him to be unpopular with political watchers on the left and the right. Before, he would face a potentially strong Democrat challenge, he would need to win re-nomination in his state against a Tea Party crowd eager to oust him. After all, the Bluegrass State was the site of the decisive but upset Republican primary victory of Rand Paul over a much better known establishment politician whom McConnell was supporting and advising.

Almost immediately after that primary, McConnell was able to swallow his pride and struck up a productive relationship with Paul. The two have gotten along fairly well as colleagues on Capitol Hill and McConnell was able to snag an early endorsement from Paul, who had become a national figure. His former campaign manager signed up to run McConnell's campaign. Nonetheless, many on the right still thought they could knock McConnell off. They rallied around conservative businessman Matt Bevin, who ran a spirited campaign, and at times looked like he could win the primary, thus endangering a Republican held seat. Nonetheless, the politically seasoned incumbent prevailed by a margin of 60-35 in the May primary. That might not have been an overwhelming victory for the longest serving Senator in Kentucky history, but it was still a wider margin than many expected during the entire primary campaign, even up until the end. This would mark the first big victory of the "Establishment" over the "Tea Party" in the 2014 GOP primaries, but the two factions would swap wins in some states afterwards.

Before Bevin emerged as a factor in the race, Kentucky Democrats worked hard to try to recruit a top tier opponent to face McConnell. From their perspective, if he were to be defeated in a primary, they would be in even better shape, although the anti-McConnell crowd on the right would have said just the opposite. A handful of statewide elected Kentucky Democrats took a pass on the race, and it looked like the party nationally was focusing on actress and activist Ashley Judd to run. The McConnell campaign seemed to take the starlet seriously and there was an incident of Democrat activists somehow eavesdropping on a strategy session in which the Senator and his team were discussing Judd. That made a lot of headlines and eventually Judd decided that electoral politics would not be for her. I will maintain that she would not have been a strong candidate in a general election and Democrats should feel at least somewhat fortunate that she passed.

So, the party was still looking for a candidate, and politically promising Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes stepped forward, after having seemingly turned down calls for her to run against McConnell earlier. Just 35 years old, Grimes had won statewide office in 2011 and was the daughter of a longtime powerful Democrat politico in the state. Many across the country were enthusiastic about the chances of what they considered to be a dynamic campaigner against a Senator who took office when she was just six years old.

While polls have been relatively close throughout the campaign, the Grimes campaign has been struck with a serious of missteps, starting with what was considered a botched roll out to mixed messages surrounding whether or not she supports Obamacare, to surrogates somehow comparing McConnell to a Nazi and later making an issue of the Asian background of McConnell's wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The candidate has also appeared somewhat ill at ease on foreign policy issues, such as not exactly understanding what the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system is.

Nonetheless, she has consistently been close in the general election polls, even narrowly leading some not too long ago. I really believe this a factor of those on the right who supported Bevin or who are otherwise angry at McConnell being slow to support him. Some had said they might even vote for Grimes over him, but I doubt that will happen at any kind of large number. McConnell, who has won tight reelection races before, may never win over some people in the public opinion polls done over the telephone, but that does not necessarily mean they will eventually not swallow hard and vote for him on Election Day.

While I concede this race is probably not going to be a blowout, I think it is somewhat more likely that McConnell wins by a bigger than expected margin when all is said and done than the scenario of him losing. While Grimes may be considered a rising star in her party, what I have seen of her on tv has not impressed me in regards to her campaign style. She seems almost like a caricature at times with her rhetoric and the way she speaks and gesticulates. Her campaign is now faced with answering questions surrounding a campaign bus and a sweetheart deal that might he tied to her father. McConnell might have made enough enemies in the state to be somewhat vulnerable, but in order for a Democrat to beat him this year, they will pretty much need to catch every break.

Kentucky Democrats continue to fare well at the state and local level, in relation to most of the rest of the South, but in federal election, the Bluegrass State is now about as Red as it comes. Only the Louisville Metro area votes to send Democrats to Washington these days and the last time the Commonwealth sent a Democrat to the Senate, it was 1992. The last time a non-incumbent Democrat accomplished the task, it was 1974.

Grimes has tried to walk a thin line by criticizing the Obama Administration in campaign ads, but raising money and campaigning with national left-wing icons such as Elizabeth Warren. The electorate of Kentucky is going to be conservative this year and the whole coal issue, as well as Obama in general will continue to be a political anchor for Grimes. McConnell should win by at least six points.

The past several years as Senate Minority Leader has had McConnell in the most thankless job in national politics and he has paid the price for it. As a candidate though, he and his "Team Mitch" have worked very hard to win a primary and to currently start moving ahead of his general election opponent in polls. He probably would not be very popular as Senate Majority Leader, but he sure will have more power.

McConnell campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 4 D (3 Safe, 1 Tossup), 8 R (2 Safe, 1 Likely, 3 Leans, 2 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 38 D, 38 R (net Republican gain of 3)


At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corey - this is MD. Decent analysis but what is this trading wins stuff you refereed to in regards to the tea party and the establishment? The tea party had their butts handed to them with the exception of Cantor and that was not a state wide race.

As for Grimes, she seems to have over rehearsed her answers and tries to commit them to memory. Then, she gets nervous and the gaffes begin. She got ahead based on her father's money but honestly is years away from being ready for prime time.


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