Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leads Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by 2 percentage points, 47 percent to 45 percent, in the latest Bluegrass Poll.
The survey represents McConnell's first lead in the Bluegrass Poll, which is sponsored by four media organizations in the state, and it comes ahead of this weekend's Fancy Farm Picnic, the traditional kickoff to Kentucky campaign season.
Here are the six key takeaways from the survey:
1. McConnell is gaining ground. Yes, 2 points is within the margin of error. But this isn't the first Bluegrass Poll — it's the third of the year. And McConnell has been making steady gains, from trailing Grimes by 4 percentage points in February to a 1-point deficit in May. Now, for the first time, he's up by 2.
2. Grimes is winning independents — and still losing. One of the more interesting findings of the poll is that Grimes leads McConnell among independent voters by 50 percent to 33 percent. And yet she still trails by 2 points. How? Because McConnell, despite a divisive primary in May, is pulling in 82 percent of Republicans and Grimes is gathering only 74 percent of Democrats. Part of that is that many Kentucky Democrats don't truly vote Democratic in federal elections. But it also shows that McConnell effectively, quickly consolidated his GOP base.
3. Grimes doesn't have the gender gap she needs. The good news for Grimes is, she is winning women voters. The bad news is, she is barely winning them — by a single percentage point — and to win in November she likely needs to win them by more. It's one of the reasons she talks so much about being a woman. Back in May, she told National Journal, "The women across the commonwealth, they are our strength — 53 percent of the electorate. They are the reason that I'm currently Kentucky's only female statewide elected officer and they will be the reason why we break through the ceiling that exists and finally get our first female United States senator." That's unlikely if women only give her a 1-percentage point margin.
4. McConnell is winning young voters. The contrast of the race couldn't be sharper with McConnell, 72, facing down an opponent, Grimes, 35, who is half his age. And yet the veteran incumbent is actually leading Grimes among the youngest voters, those who are 18 to 34 — 49 percent to 44 percent. It's not just in the horse-race question, either. Asked which candidate they trust more on the issue of coal, and balancing jobs versus the environment, McConnell leads Grimes among the youngest voters, 43 percent to 37 percent. The Grimes campaign talks about McConnell's 30 years in Washington at every turn, but it appears the next generation of voters haven't warmed to the message that he's over the hill yet. (Corollary: McConnell's biggest support comes among the oldest voters, those 65 and above, who back him at a 54 percent clip.)
5. President Obama is really, really unpopular. How unpopular? Try a 28 percent favorability rating. If that stands, Grimes would have to pull in the votes of almost a quarter of the Kentucky electorate that didn't give Obama a favorable rating to win. Obama's approval rating is bad statewide (it's only 34 percent in Louisville) but it's atrocious in eastern Kentucky, the heart of coal country, wherel 69 percent said they view him unfavorably. Not surprisingly, that region provided McConnell with some of the strongest support. It also happens to be where Grimes announced Monday she will campaign with former President Clinton next month.
6. This is a real race. For a long time, the McConnell campaign quietly sought to cast Grimes as a long shot with little chance to beat his well-oiled political machine. But poll after poll, including this one, shows the race remains within the margin of error. Grimes has had to weather a near-nonstop assault on the airwaves — courtesy of a super PAC and nonprofit backing McConnell — since the May primary. She has survived it so far. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicts Kentucky will be "one of the closest races of the cycle."
The poll was conducted between July 18 and 23 by Survey USA with 604 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.