Politics

11.06.13

An Eye on Next Year's Hottest Race: Kentucky

I’ll have more to say later today and tomorrow on last night’s results. But let’s start the morning, now that that election is over, thinking about the next one. A year from today, we’ll wake up to find out who’s in control of the United States Senate—and to see what new faces will emerge there (and which old faces the new ones will be sending off to pasture).

One old face not looking so hot right now is Mitch McConnell’s. He’s being challenged first by a tea-party primary opponent, Matt Bevin. They’re already slugging it out, for a primary that will happen next May 20. McConnell is way ahead at this point, but Bevin has money (a bell manufacturer, of all odd things; I’d like to be at the Courier-Journal writing the headlines if he wins). But McConnell’s more serious opponent is the Democratic front-runner, Alison Lundergan Grimes. I’ve written about her before. Grimes has mostly been leading McConnell in polls. They’re often within the margin of error, but still, they show she’s a strong contender, they ensure that she’ll be able to raise plenty of money, and so on.

I got my hands on a brief “state of the race” memo written by Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst, and it makes some points worth keeping in mind. For example:

*In 2008, while John McCain was beating Barack Obama in Kentucky by 16 points, McConnell held on to win by just five over Bruce Lunsford. That means about 100,000 voters pulled for McCain and then bothered to switch over and back Lunsford. Never a good thing. And since this is not a presidential year, there will be no one at the top of the ticket to get large numbers of Republicans out to the polls. McConnell will be the top of the ticket.

In addition, as Hurst notes, Lunsford “entered the race late in the cycle and was a very polarizing figure among Kentucky Democrats. He also faced a costly primary battle against current Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.” Lundergan Grimes has none of those issues.

*An “overwhelming 58 percent of likely Kentucky voters hold a negative view of his performance in the Senate.” That is serious Danger-Will-Robinson territory for a man who’s been in office since 1985. In this era of division and dysfunction, few politicians are above 55 percent or so. But a negative that high is frightening for a known quantity.

*Lundergan Grimes “significantly outraised” McConnell last quarter, taking in $2.5 million from 13,000 donors from every county in the state. Another unique sign of weakness for an incumbent.

McConnell’s stock in trade is to go nasty but with a dollop of humor. I still remember the “Where’s Dee?” bloodhound ads he ran against Democratic incumbent Dee Huddleston when he first won back in 1984 (Huddleston had taken one too many junkets; McConnell just barely beat him). In 2002, McConnell ran against new Obamacare hero Governor Steve Beshear. That time it was “Don’t Get Besheared,” with stock footage of sheeps being sheared. I guess we’re in for something about grime.

A year from now, this will probably be one of the hottest races in the country, maybe the hottest. It’s very much worth checking in on between now and then.