Another battle to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky is shaping up much like his previous reelection contests: with a relatively easy victory for McConnell, the senator Democrats love to hate but can’t figure out how to beat.
Early optimism around retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a former Marine who nearly won a seat in Congress in 2018 before challenging McConnell this year, has, in recent weeks, given way to a realization of McConnell’s brute strength in Kentucky.
A recent survey from Mason-Dixon, which nailed the state’s deadlocked gubernatorial contest a year ago, found McConnell ahead by 9 points, well behind Trump ― who enjoys a 17-point lead in the state ― but still comfortably ahead of McGrath. Another poll, from the GOP-aligned firm Cygnal, found McConnell ahead by a similar margin and with a positive approval rating that the firm said had closed the door on the race.
“At this point,” Chris Kratzer, Cygnal’s vice president of research and analysis, said, “McGrath just doesn’t have a path to victory.”
Democrats in Kentucky, however, insist that’s not true. Pointing to early vote totals in key areas and the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, they argue that there are still signs of hope in the race, even if it might take a miraculous finish for McGrath to pull off the upset.
“McConnell is still a pretty big favorite,” said Robert Kahne, a co-host of the “My Old Kentucky Podcast,” which covers state politics from a progressive perspective. “But it’s certainly not outside of the realm of possibility, especially in a big wave, for her to get caught up in it and win the seat.”
The dream scenario goes something like this: Trump’s margin in Kentucky, which polls suggest has already been halved from his 30-point romp there four years ago, might be even smaller than projected. The suburbs of Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati, all of which followed national shifts toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms and 2019 gubernatorial race, turn out even more fervently than expected and lean even harder for McGrath than originally hoped. A Libertarian candidate draws enough of the vote to knock a couple more points off McConnell’s total, while a sizable chunk of Republican voters, thinking both McConnell and Trump have Kentucky in the bag, don’t show up to vote in person on Tuesday. And McConnell’s refusal to pass a new economic relief package in the midst of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic comes back to haunt him in the end.
McGrath seized on that last point in the final stages of the race. During the only debate of the race in mid-October, she hammered McConnell for refusing to negotiate a new stimulus package with House Democrats even as the pandemic batters the economy of Kentucky, where the unemployment rate’s recent decline to 5.6% is due largely to people leaving the workforce altogether, according to state officials.
She returned to it again in a piece published last week in the Lexington Herald-Leader, the state’s second-largest newspaper, that blasted McConnell for bailing out corporations and passing tax cuts for the wealthy early in the Trump administration’s tenure.
“Sen. McConnell could find $500 billion for a slush fund for big corporations and $250 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans,” McGrath wrote, “but apparently there are no resources for Kentucky as families and small businesses continue to struggle.”
It’s the sort of closing argument many Democrats in the state believe can be effective against McConnell. Half of Kentuckians rated COVID-19 the biggest problem facing the state in a recent poll, which also found that 51% of Kentuckians disapprove of McConnell.
That has driven hope that McGrath’s coronavirus-focused message could tap into voter frustrations that might not be reflected in the horse race polls, especially during an unprecedented election cycle in which Kentuckians can vote early or by mail for the first time. Those shifts may have made a lightly polled state even harder to forecast.
Or so Democrats hope.
“We are doing things that we have never done before in Kentucky with early voting, so nobody knows how this is going to work out,” one Democratic consultant there said this week. “There is no crystal ball in Kentucky. All bets are off.”
It’s a long shot ― McGrath may have a 1-in-5 chance, the consultant guessed. But it’s also 2020. Stranger things have happened.
And even if she doesn’t pull it off, a strong showing might help the state Democratic Party and its down-ballot candidates in close races ― especially in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, where another former Marine, Josh Hicks, is hoping to win the GOP House seat McGrath barely lost out on just two years ago.
McGrath entered the race against McConnell in 2019 to national fanfare that offered an early sign of just how enthusiastic Democratic voters were about the chance to oust Trump, McConnell and other top Republicans this fall. She immediately set Kentucky fundraising records and never stopped hauling in otherworldly amounts of cash, even as election forecasters and independent observers consistently viewed McConnell as a relatively safe incumbent, especially compared to Republicans running in states far more favorable to Democrats.
Winning as a Democrat in Kentucky isn’t impossible: Last year, Andy Beshear narrowly defeated then-Gov. Matt Bevin in a high-profile gubernatorial race that proved the state’s Democratic Party wasn’t quite dead yet. But it is hard: Beshear was the popular son of a well-liked former governor running against one of the least popular elected officials in America. He won by just 5,000 votes ― roughly one per voting precinct.
Repeating that feat, even against a politician as unpopular as McConnell, was always going to be difficult. Kentucky Democrats have a solid track record in gubernatorial races ― Beshear’s victory made them 11 for their last 13 in such contests ― but they haven’t elected a senator since 1992, and haven’t come within 100,000 votes of beating McConnell since his first bid for reelection in 1990.
Knocking McConnell off requires running a near-perfect race, but McGrath stumbled out of the gate, when she flip-flopped on whether she’d have supported Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court and tried to paint McConnell as the chief roadblock to key parts of Trump’s agenda. The argument made sense as an attempt to appeal to wavering Trump voters. But its execution was sloppy, and it inspired headlines about whether McGrath was trying to run as a “pro-Trump Democrat.”
Much like Beshear, McGrath is more progressive than she’s often perceived to be: She supports adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, boosting the minimum wage to $15, is pro-choice, and has argued for sizable investments in rural infrastructure, especially in places the coal industry has left behind. She backed Trump’s impeachment and was an early supporter of eventual Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
But while the stumbles didn’t dent her fundraising ability, they hurt her among progressives in Kentucky and nationally, especially during an unexpectedly fierce Democratic primary race that she barely survived.
McGrath’s populist appeal around COVID-19 and the underlying message that McConnell has simply been in office too long mimic her approach to the 2018 House race. And it follows the contours of Beshear’s race against Bevin last year, when the Democrat focused the contest on plans to bolster public education, protect health care coverage, and invest in working-class Kentuckians he accused Bevin of targeting at every turn.
But it took McGrath time to settle on a clear message, and in the meantime, McConnell spent big trying to nationalize the race. He has painted McGrath as a tool of the more liberal national Democratic establishment, thanks to her support for abortion rights and her insistence, during the 2018 House race, that she was “further left” and “more progressive” than anyone in Kentucky.
McConnell has also made appeals ― beneath the thinnest of racist veils ― to Kentucky’s mostly white voting population by suggesting that Democrats like McGrath support rioting because they backed anti-racist protests over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
His campaign’s arguments are often misleading: McGrath does not support allowing abortions “through the ninth month,” as McConnell and his allies have suggested. And at times, the Republican senator doesn’t even pretend he’s running in Kentucky: An early campaign ad about protesters tearing down Confederate monuments exaggerates the movement to claim that demonstrators are broadly targeting statues of presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. None of the cities the ad focused on were located in the Bluegrass State.
But his arguments play to the fears and desires of many voters in a conservative state. Abortion and cultural conservatism still dominate races in Kentucky, especially at the national level, and McConnell uses those to fashion his own sort of cultural populism that has helped him blunt a more economically focused populism. In the debate against McGrath, he repeatedly noted that he was the only member of leadership who wasn’t from New York or California, a sort of anti-elitism that positions McConnell as the last defender of the Real American everyman.
“It’s not complicated,” McConnell said at the debate. “Do you want somebody from New York to be setting the agenda for America and not terribly interested in Kentucky? Or do you want to continue to have one of the four congressional leaders [be] from our state, looking out for Kentucky, giving Kentucky an opportunity to punch above its weight, providing extra assistance for Kentucky?”
It’s no less cynical than any of his other arguments ― throughout McConnell’s career, he has been one of Washington’s staunchest advocates for eroding campaign finance laws and handing outsized influence to corporations, lobbyists and those who can afford to participate in democracy. But in a state that doesn’t have much national influence, McConnell has ably sold his own nihilistic quest for power as one that benefits Kentuckians, and he brings just enough home to keep the argument fresh. Case in point: Last December, as the election cycle began, McConnell steered a bill to protect the pensions of 90,000 coal miners through the Senate.
“Kentuckians know that they are sometimes the butt of jokes from people on the coasts,” said Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political journalist and the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. “When McConnell says, ‘I’m the only one from the middle of the country, and the rest of them are from the coasts,’ that’s almost a dog whistle that those people out there are making fun of us, and I’m standing up for us.”
“There’s a certain kind of grudging respect for McConnell, and even a regard among some people,” Cross said, “just because he’s given Kentucky a seat at the national table.”
Hope For The Future?
If beating McConnell in 2020 required a perfect set of circumstances, Trump and the Kentucky senator have done much to create them. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic collapse have cratered Trump’s popularity and potentially his reelection hopes nationwide, setting the stage for another potential Blue Wave. Kentucky hasn’t fared as poorly as other states during the pandemic, although its case numbers are rising to record levels now and its already-fragile economy has been bludgeoned.
McConnell’s lack of action could blunt the idea that he’s in the Senate to get things done for Kentuckians, although many others may be motivated by his rush to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, given its potential implications for abortion law.
Turnout in Lexington is already nearing levels from past elections, and suburban areas in Louisville, where McConnell has traditionally remained strong but that have trended blue in recent elections, have seen high levels of early voting, too. And polls have suggested that Trump isn’t as strong in eastern Kentucky ― ancestral Democratic territory that turned against the party in the Obama and Trump years ― as he was four years ago.
The McGrath campaign is expecting record turnout across Kentucky, especially among new voters, and said its data showed that she was performing well among key demographics she has targeted. McGrath, the campaign said, leads McConnell among voters who hadn’t voted in any of the last three Kentucky elections, and has the support of two-thirds of young voters who have cast ballots so far. Ninety-one percent of Black voters have backed McGrath, and more than half of newly registered voters and women support her, according to the campaign.
Still, it may be too little, too late. If recent polls are accurate, McGrath hasn’t yet hit the margins she’d need in any of Kentucky’s six congressional districts to pull off the upset in what remains a Republican-friendly state.
“This is the best possible environment. And if you’re going to win, this is the environment you have to have,” Kahne said. “But she’s running in a new world. Andy Beshear was the pioneer. It’s like, we know how to do it. But it’s still really hard.”
There are other potential sources of hope for Democrats in Kentucky. McGrath has a chance to cement the party’s progress with a strong showing in the state’s growing suburbs, and doing so could help Democrats farther down the ballot. Democrats are hoping to flip state legislative seats in suburban GOP districts in northern Kentucky and Louisville, where the party could elect a record 12 Democratic women to the state assembly this year.
McGrath could also help send another Democrat to Washington if she keeps the race close in central Kentucky, where Hicks is locked in a tight contest with GOP Rep. Andy Barr in the state’s 6th Congressional District. The work McGrath put into the district during her narrow loss there two years ago, and the millions of dollars she’s spent there this time around, may ultimately help push Hicks over the line, Democrats in the state say.
It’s impossible to know now whether the pandemic-driven voting changes will last beyond this election. But together with Beshear’s reenfranchisement of 100,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions, the changes have made one of the most restrictive states in the nation more small-d democratic. That has generated newfound energy for both elections and the fight to expand voting rights in Kentucky, said Cassia Herron, the board chair of the progressive group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it may leave officials with little choice but to make voting by mail and early voting permanent.
Winning that sort of change when Republicans hold every statewide office but one and supermajorities in both legislative chambers is no small feat.
Beating McConnell in Kentucky, where the state Democratic Party reached its nadir four years ago, is likely a generational fight. The hope there is still that McGrath can pull off the miracle.
Short of that, Democrats will spend next week looking for signs that her campaign, and the tens of millions of dollars she raised for it, have at least moved them in the right direction this time.
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