McConnell looks likely to win this fall, but his odds are overstated


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with his wife Elaine Chao, addresses a crowd of campaign supporters after defeating Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in the primary elections in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 20, 2014. (John Sommers II/Reuters)

Yes, Mitch McConnell is in a tough race this fall against Alison Lundergan Grimes. But he is going to win.

That’s the conventional wisdom in Washington. However, there’s plenty of reason to think that it’s wrong — or, at the very least, that it overstates the level of confidence that people should have in McConnell’s chances of coming back to Washington in 2015.

“I think the odds are slightly better than 50/50, but not much better,” acknowledged one Republican operative closely connected with the McConnell world, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race candidly. “The election is about us, and with 30 years of record and the last [10] in leadership, that is tough.”

Consider the following when thinking about how much trouble McConnell is really in:

●No public polling in the race between McConnell and Grimes has shown the incumbent getting more than 50 percent of the vote. In the Real Clear Politics poll of the polls, which averages all of the data in the contest, McConnell is at 45.5 percent to Grimes’s 43.5 percent. That matters when you are talking about someone who has been in the Senate since 1984.

Election Lab: See our current forecast for every congressional race in 2014

●McConnell’s approval ratings are upside down in those polls — meaning that the number of people who disapprove of the job he is doing outpaces those who like how he is doing. In an NBC-Marist poll conducted last month, showing McConnell and Grimes in a statistical dead heat, 41 percent of respondents approved of how McConnell is handling his job and 46 percent disapproved. A New York Times-Kaiser poll conducted in late April, in which the two candidates were, again, in a dead heat, has McConnell’s job approval at 40 percent compared with a 52 percent disapproval rating.

●Aside from a semi-disastrous campaign announcement, Lundergan Grimes has performed well as a young candidate (she’s 35) making her first run for this type of high-profile office. She has avoided any major mistakes — Republicans will say that’s because she has limited her public appearances, but so what? — and raised money at a rapid pace, with more than $8 million collected at the end of April.

●McConnell’s longtime ace in the hole, his seniority and power in Washington, is likely to have less cachet with voters than in any of his previous elections. There is an anti-Washington sentiment coursing through the national electorate at the moment — just take a look at the approval ratings of Congress if you don’t believe me — that makes the “I deliver for the state” argument a far more fraught political position than it was even when McConnell won his last race, in 2008.

“He’s always been ‘in trouble,’ and he may have met the perfect storm in 2014 of a much more truculent electorate where his leadership in D.C. matters less and he faces a Democratic opponent with strong credentials and strong fundraising,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who has worked extensively in the Bluegrass State.

Now, before the likes of John Cornyn (Tex.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) get too excited — both men would like to succeed McConnell atop the party — it’s worth noting that though McConnell may well be more vulnerable than political Washington thinks, he’s far from a stone-cold loser.

First, this is Kentucky. The state where President Obama took just 38 percent of the vote in 2012, winning just four of the state’s 120 counties. And the political environment this fall seems likely to be as good, if not better, for Republicans as it was in 2012.

McConnell and his team are banking on the belief that Grimes won’t be able to escape being in the same party as the unpopular president, no matter how much she tries to insist that she is a Kentucky Democrat. In his primary victory speech late last month, McConnell previewed his planned line of attack against Grimes: “My opponent is in the race because Barack Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid want her in the race.”

Second, this is McConnell. Even Democrats who loathe him begrudgingly admit that he and his campaign operation are among the most effective in modern memory. McConnell’s destruction of Matt Bevin (the tea-party-backed challenger found himself answering questions about his attendance at a cock-fighting rally toward the end of the campaign) served as a reminder of just how good the McConnell operation really is. “McConnell has run several of the toughest and most effective statewide campaigns in American political history,” said Larry McCarthy, McConnell’s media consultant. “Grimes has never run a tough statewide campaign.”

The question at the heart of this campaign — and one we won’t probably know the answer to until the day after the election — is this: Whose unpopularity matters more, McConnell’s or Obama’s?

Regardless of how that question gets answered, it’s clear (at least to me) that McConnell is facing his toughest race since he came to the Senate in 1985 and that his odds of winning this fall are overstated here in Washington.

“He remains the favorite, but as long as his job rating remains low, he remains vulnerable to the oldest [and sometimes still best] slogan in politics, ‘Time for a change,’ ” said Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political reporter who is the head of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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