Just how much trouble is Mitch McConnell really in?

August 15, 2013

The two leading independent political handicappers in the country -- Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg -- paint very different pictures of the race unfolding in Kentucky between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), businessman Matt Bevin (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Here's the Cook Report readout on the race:

"McConnell can take on Grimes, though, he must contend with a primary challenge to his right from businessman and political newcomer Matt Bevin. It is worth remembering that McConnell runs textbook perfect campaigns and is an aggressive fundraiser. His opponents underestimate him at their peril. Polling shows McConnell well ahead of Bevin in the primary, but that the general election is in single digits. The contest is in the Toss Up column."

And here's Stu's take:

"Suggesting that this race is close to a toss up dramatically over-weights early polling and ignores the Republican advantage in the state in federal races. After all, McConnell won in 2008 -- a horrible year for Republicans. We reiterate our 'Republican favored' rating but definitely agree that this race is worth watching and that Republicans could find themselves in trouble here thirteen months from now."

So, who's right? Well, it depends.

Stu is absolutely right about the history of federal races in Kentucky. Republicans now control five of the state's six congressional seats and both Senate seats. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state was Wendell Ford in 1992. In the 2010 open seat race, which Democrats insisted they could win, Rand Paul beat Jack Conway by 12 points. President Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky in 2012, three points worse than he did in the Bluegrass State four years earlier.

And, Charlie is right that the polling we have -- granted it is done by Democratic pollsters -- suggests that McConnell is in a dog fight with Grimes, even before Bevin begins to go after him in earnest in the primary. (Rest assured that if Republicans had polling showing McConnell with a big lead over Grimes, they would have released it to rebut the "it's tied" narrative Democrats built.) Plus, if 2012 isn't likely to be nearly as bad a year for Republicans nationally as 2008, Grimes, at least at the start, appears to be a more compelling candidate that Bruce Lunsford, the man McConnell beat with 53 percent five years ago. And, in that race, McConnell didn't have a serious primary fight.

Here's what we know:

* McConnell is as vulnerable as he has ever been. No one disputes the idea that his numbers are unimpressive and that to win he will have to make almost no mistakes.

* If anybody is going to run a good campaign it's McConnell, who has built a stable of current and former political operatives that rival any other Senator -- with the possible exception of Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

* Grimes, after a horrendous initial kickoff, has been steadier -- including a strong performance at Fancy Farm. She has solid and experienced consultants around her, which will help with the fact that she simply has never been in a race of this magnitude before.

* Bevin has personal money and, in theory, a message -- McConnell has gone Washington -- that could resonate.  It's tough to see him unseating McConnell in a primary but far easier to see him forcing McConnell to spend millions simply to be the GOP nominee.

* The race will be won (and lost) on this question: Is this a race solely about McConnell and his performance in office or is it also about President Obama and a Democratic Senate majority?

Where do we come down on how the race should be rated?  Lean McConnell. Combine McConnell's campaign apparatus, fundraising capacity, the state's Republican tilt at the federal level and Grimes' greenness as a candidate at this level and the contest tilts to the incumbent. But, Democrats have plenty of reason to be optimistic -- and should be rooting like crazy for Bevin to develop into a serious (and seriously funded) candidate.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · August 15, 2013