July 1, 2013
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (Roger Alford/Associated Press)
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (Roger Alford/Associated Press)

A rare piece of good news for Democrats today in Senate elections: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes decided to challenge Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. She wasn’t just the Democrats’ best hope in that state; at this point, her candidacy was probably their best single chance of picking up any Senate seat in 2016. The Cook Political Report responded by moving Kentucky to “Lean Republican” — it’s hardly an easy race for Grimes, but odds are that she’ll at least give McConnell a real contest.

Democrats are playing a tough hand during the current election cycle, especially in the Senate. Midterms are usually tough for a party that holds the White House; second-term midterms tend to be worse; Democrats generally face a tougher electorate in midterms than in presidential years, all else being equal; and this particular cycle, six years after the Obama landslide in 2008, features lots of good potential takeover targets for Republicans and few for Democrats.

Political scientists generally have found the importance of specific candidates in presidential general elections is vastly overrated. But in congressional elections, it’s a different story. A first-rate candidate has a good chance to mount a well-funded campaign, maximizing the party’s potential vote; a mediocre candidate won’t just do incrementally worse, but will often simply fizzle out entirely.

So candidate recruitment matters quite a bit

Even with Grimes, Kentucky Democrats won’t have an easy task. But now, if McConnell turns out to be vulnerable, they’ll probably be well-positioned to take advantage of it.

The only likely way that Democrats pick up any other seat is if a surprise tea party challenger — and not just any Tea Party challenger, but a particularly bad one — emerges and manages to knock off a Republican incumbent (or, perhaps, a surprise Republican retirement followed by a tea party nomination win). It’s possible, but so far there’s no hint of that happening.

And with Democratic retirements and some endangered Democratic incumbents running in good states for Republicans, there are just far more GOP pickup opportunities this cycle. Democrats hope, at least, that today doesn’t turn out to be the best day of the entire election cycle.