Kentucky primary sends a message

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Well, that didn’t take long. Kentucky’s once—exalted GOP Senate primary, so unsuspenseful these last few months, was called just one minute after the polls closed Tuesday. By a margin of over twenty points, Kentucky Republicans have nominated Mitch McConnell for a sixth term in the Senate—and possibly his first term as Majority Leader.

Possibly, but not probably. With several Democrats showing unexpected strength in their re-election battles this year, a lot will have to go right for McConnell to finally win his majority, including his own reelection battle.

McConnell’s landslide is being covered as a giant establishment victory. And in a way it is. His 24-point rout of Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin might inspire some confidence among his backers, but only on the surface. Remember, this is a man who is the political godfather to half the Republican leaders in this state, and a household name in Kentucky circles after 30 years in the Senate. The fact that a political novice who made more than his share of rookie campaign mistakes could shave off more than a third of the vote from him speaks to the discontent that McConnell faces not just among Republican voters, but Kentuckians as a whole.

McConnell spent huge sums of money early on to define his challenger. The way in which he strangled Matt Bevin’s candidacy in the crib—launching a negative ad blitz the day after he declared that would eventually brand him in voters’ eyes as “Bailout Bevin”–shows that McConnell’s team is as ruthless, effective and politically cunning as ever. And despite the millions spent securing the senator’s re-nomination, they will have many millions more to spend for the general election.

For that race, McConnell might need all of the political savvy he can muster—and then some.

He’s a deeply unpopular incumbent, scoring disapproval ratings above 60 percent in most public opinion surveys. And in head to head match ups with his Democratic opponent, Kentucky’s Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, he’s either tied or trailing by a point or two. We can expect a slight primary bump as some of Matt Bevin’s supporters coalesce behind the eventual Republican nominee, but he can’t hope for the bounce to be either big or enduring. After 30 years in the Senate, McConnell is a known commodity, and the more Kentuckians have gotten to know him, the less they like him. The senator has managed the feat of being a widely unpopular Republican in a widely Republican state. What remains to be seen is whether his built-in advantages will be able to overcome that.

Mitch McConnell cruises to victory.
Mitch McConnell cruises to victory. (Screenshot)

Start with money.

The senator’s campaign has over $10 million, and they can expect to raise millions more as various wealthy donors and business groups ingratiate themselves with the man they hope to make the Senate’s next Majority Leader. Of course, Kentucky is a state with relatively cheap media markets. $10 million will go a long way towards inundating with state with McConnell’s ads, and outside groups will also be going on air. In fact, the pro-McConnell SuperPAC Kentuckians for Strong leadership has already announced an ad buy of $570,000 attacking Allison Grimes, starting the day after the primary.

Then there are the midterm fundamentals to consider.

It’s hard for Democrats to generate the voter enthusiasm they need to succeed during midterms, for the reason that their constituencies are else motivated to vote without a presidential race to draw them to the polls. Kentucky’s 2014 midterm electorate will surely be far older, whiter and more Republican than the national electorate. And while it’s true that Democrats outnumber Republicans in Kentucky’s voter registration rolls, enough of these Democrats vote like Republicans in federal races to give the GOP nominee a decisive advantage.

And then there’s the President.

President Obama is highly unpopular in Kentucky, and McConnell will have a simple and powerful message to tell his state’s voters. “My opponent will be another vote for his agenda in the Senate, but I am the Nobama.” It’s a line that’s gotten Republicans elected in less conservative states than Kentucky and if McConnell prevails despite his atrocious approval ratings, Obama will have been his lifeline.

But here’s the thing.

Approval ratings not strong in the Bluegrass state for President Obama and Sen. McConnell.
Approval ratings not strong in the Bluegrass state for President Obama and Sen. McConnell.

As bad as Obama’s numbers are in Kentucky, McConnell’s are actually worse. In a Public Policy poll released last April, the President’s favorability rating in Kentucky was a dire 32 percent. But only 30 percent of Kentuckians viewed their senior senator in a good light. And while the overwhelming majority of Republicans will back him in his reelection battle, many will be “sort of holding their noses” as McConnell’s own campaign manager was caught on tape saying about his dedication to his boss’ reelection.

“No outcome in this election will change the identity of our President,” Grimes said on CNN today. “This race isn’t about him — it’s about Kentucky, and the man who’s held this seat for thirty years and worn out his welcome. The senator of yesterday.”

If Grimes can make McConnell the main subject this November, she stands a very good chance of toppling this political titan. And McConnell knows it, judging by his line of attack in his victory speech:

“If the American people give Republicans a majority in the Senate, you’ll be proud of the United States Senate once again,” McConnell said to supporters. “We can take the reins of power away from Harry Reid and make this president accountable.”

“Make me the majority leader,” he continued, “and Kentucky will lead America.”

In an election held in a red state in a low-turnout midterm, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Control of the Senate might hinge on this outcome in Kentucky, and with it whatever ability Democrats still have to advance Obama’s agenda. Both sides will have at least tens of millions of dollars in either direct contributions or support from outside groups to advance their narratives.

So this election raises a huge political question. What happens when you take a senator who is so politically toxic and unpopular that he can’t win, and watch him run for reelection in an environment so favorable that he can’t lose? Democrats will be hoping that the race is about McConnell instead of the question of the balance of power in the Senate, while Republicans will make it about Obama all day, every day.

In less than six months, McConnell could be the incoming Majority Leader, at the height of his political power at the age of 73. Or he could be involuntarily retired by a wave of disgusted voters. Whichever outcome is realized, observers expect it the final numbers to be tight as a tic. It’s very likely that the fate of the Senate will be decided by just a few thousand votes in Kentucky as the voters there determine whether McConnell limps across the finish line to become Majority Leader, or is defeated by a razor-close margin to become a footnote in history.

Stay tuned.