How Mitch McConnell Could Win the Senate, But Lose His Seat

The minority leader’s campaign isn’t rising like others in the GOP.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives at a press conference, September 26, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Feb. 12, 2014, 2:58 p.m.

Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s party has nev­er looked a bet­ter bet to re­take the Sen­ate. But if they do, he might not be around to en­joy it.

The Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er is locked in a slug­fest with Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, his gen­er­al-elec­tion op­pon­ent, and re­cent polling sug­gests he’s be­hind. A WHAS11/Cour­i­er-Journ­al Bluegrass Poll re­leased last week found Grimes lead­ing 46 per­cent to 42 per­cent. Even Mc­Con­nell’s al­lies, while still con­fid­ent of vic­tory, ac­know­ledge the sen­at­or has a dog­fight on his hands.

While a tough race is not a sur­prise, what does alarm Re­pub­lic­ans is how Mc­Con­nell’s stand­ing has stag­nated as the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment im­proves for the GOP. Pres­id­ent Obama’s still-sag­ging poll num­bers have weakened Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents from North Car­o­lina to Alaska — but not in Ken­tucky.

And that means a good year for Re­pub­lic­ans isn’t guar­an­teed to bail out Mc­Con­nell.

“All Sen­ate races are in­di­vidu­al,” said Billy Piper, the sen­at­or’s former long­time chief of staff. “We in D.C. tend to like to think of things in sweep­ing nar­rat­ives, and oc­ca­sion­ally that proves to be the case. But Sen­ate races tend to be pretty big on their own, and they fol­low their own pat­ters and flows.”

The Grimes cam­paign hasn’t dawdled pro­mot­ing its new­found strength. It is­sued four press re­leases in five days tout­ing the Bluegrass poll. It’s an open­ing, of­fi­cials there say, to fi­nally con­vince the pub­lic that Ken­tucky’s sec­ret­ary of state has a real chance at win­ning.

Grimes’s can­did­acy has al­ways hinged on the deep un­pop­ular­ity sewn dur­ing Mc­Con­nell’s 30-year ten­ure in Wash­ing­ton. And, in­deed, the Bluegrass sur­vey found his ap­prov­al was lower than even Obama’s in Ken­tucky. But strategists for the Grimes cam­paign also cite her own lack of a re­cord in Wash­ing­ton, es­pe­cially the fact she — un­like oth­er Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents run­ning this year — didn’t vote for Obama­care. The un­pop­u­lar law has dogged Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors like Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu this year, both of whom watched their num­bers dip dur­ing its troubled rol­lout.

“One of the reas­ons, quite frankly, that Re­pub­lic­ans look like they’re in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion is be­cause of the Demo­crats,” said Mark Mell­man, Grimes’s poll­ster. “But it’s very hard to tag her with any of things Re­pub­lic­ans have been suc­cess­ful in tag­ging Demo­crats with.”

In fact, something sim­il­ar might also be hap­pen­ing in Geor­gia, where Demo­crat Michelle Nunn’s vote-free back­ground and prodi­gious fun­drais­ing have also kindled Demo­crat­ic op­tim­ism. The two states — the only GOP-held seats Demo­crats have a hope of win­ning — each look re­l­at­ively stronger for Demo­crats.

“The over­all pic­ture for Re­pub­lic­ans has got­ten markedly bet­ter in last sev­er­al months, but that does not mean we can take our eyes of Geor­gia and Ken­tucky,” said one GOP strategist keep­ing an eye on the Sen­ate land­scape. “They haven’t moved as far, or even that close, as some states swinging in our dir­ec­tion.”

Re­pub­lic­ans in both states also face primar­ies. Of the two, there’s no doubt that the Peach State’s multi-can­did­ate brawl is the more fierce. But Mc­Con­nell’s own battle against Matt Bev­in, a Louis­ville-area busi­ness­man, has siphoned at­ten­tion and re­sources that could oth­er­wise be dir­ec­ted at Grimes, the sen­at­or’s ad­visers say.

They blame Bev­in, whose own cam­paign was rocked this week by a re­port in Politco that he sup­por­ted the 2008 mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar bail­out of Wall Street known as TARP, for the race’s tight poll num­bers. But they’re con­fid­ent that if Mc­Con­nell wins the May primary, the GOP will unite be­hind him. And then, as seni­or Mc­Con­nell ad­viser Josh Holmes said, the cam­paign can de­vote all of its at­ten­tion to Grimes.

“We think when everything hap­pens in early sum­mer, this is prob­ably not as tight a race as every­one thinks it is right now,” Holmes said.

The sen­at­or’s al­lies look to those first months of sum­mer as the point in the race when Grimes’s po­s­i­tions on everything from abor­tion rights to gay mar­riage will sink her with the state’s con­ser­vat­ive elect­or­ate. She’s not well-known among many voters now, they con­tend, but she will be by the time the race enters its home stretch in the fall.

“While [Mc­Con­nell] might have some barnacles on his hull, his name ID is 99 per­cent in Ken­tucky, so she’s not go­ing to add any barnacles,” Piper said. “She on the oth­er hand is an un­known en­tity who is go­ing to be in­tro­duced by a tid­al wave of ad­vert­ising.”

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