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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
MAY RETURN FOR HEALTH CARE VOTE
House Plans to Recess on Friday
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS
WILL TESTIFY WEDNESDAY
Manafort Subpoenaed by Judiciary Committee
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed Paul Manafort to appear publicly before the committee on Wednesday. Committee leaders Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday that they had subpoenaed Manafort on Monday night."

Source:
IN PERSIAN GULF
US Navy Ship Fired Warning Shots at Iranian Boat
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"A US Navy ship fired warning shots at an armed Iranian patrol boat Tuesday in the northern end of the Persian Gulf, according to two US defense officials. The Iranian boat is believed to have been operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to a defense official familiar with details of the incident. The officials said the Iranian boat approached and came within 150 yards of the US ship." The Iranian boat didn't respond to warnings. Fearing collision, the Navy ship fired warning shots into the water and then the Iranian ship stopped, but lingered in the area.

Source:
CRUZ SHOOTS IT DOWN
Trump Floats Cruz for AG
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Trump and his advisers are privately discussing the possibility of replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and some confidants are floating prospects who could take his place were he to resign or be fired, according to people familiar with the talks." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is one prospect. But "in a statement released late Monday, Cruz said he is 'deeply gratified that we have a principled conservative like Jeff Sessions serving as Attorney General. The stories being reported in the media tonight are false. My focus is and will remain on fighting every day to defend 28 million Texans in the U.S. Senate.'"

Source:
DEMS OPPOSE $1.6 BILLION FOR WALL
Shutdown Odds Grow with Wall Funding
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"House Republicans this week are increasing the possibility of a government shutdown in October by moving forward with a $788 billion spending bill that complies with President Donald Trump’s demands to boost the military, reduce clean-energy programs and fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Those priorities, especially $1.6 billion in wall funding, guarantee House and Senate Democratic leaders will oppose the bill. Trump has urged his Republican supporters in Congress to fight, saying in May that a 'good' shutdown may be needed to advance his agenda."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login