McConnell primary: Why Kentucky is such an oddball in US politics

Sen. Mitch McConnell is poised to defeat a tea party opponent in Kentucky's Senate primary on Tuesday, but Democrats still enjoy a registration advantage in the fall general election.

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell speaks to a gathering of supporters at the Tanglewood Farms Restaurant in Franklin, Ky., on Saturday. On Tuesday, McConnell is poised to put away tea party challenger Matt Bevin and turn his attention to the fall general election.

If the polls are correct, it will be a clean win for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, when voters mark their ballots in the Kentucky primary. The question is how close his tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, will get – and then, how that margin will figure into the general election race in November, when Senator McConnell will face likely Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. The two are tied.

How McConnell will fare against Ms. Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of state, is an even bigger question than the Bevin margin – a question complicated by this political puzzle: Kentucky has far more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet McConnell has been reelected for five terms.

It's enough to make a person scratch their head and ask: Is this state blue or red?

Here’s the evidence for blue: More voters are registered as Democrats than Republicans in Kentucky, where the blues have it over the reds by nearly a half million registered voters. Democrats, too, hold a near lock on the governorship – 16 out of the last 19 – and today’s popular Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, is on his second term. Local offices are dominated by Democrats, who also hold the House in the State Capitol. At the local and statewide level, blue rules – for now. 

But consider red’s impact: Barack Obama lost twice in this state – by wide margins in 2008 and 2012. In fact, the state trends Republican in national elections. All but one of Kentucky’s House members in Congress belongs to the GOP, and in 2010, tea party favorite Rand Paul was elected to the Senate to join McConnell, now seeking his sixth term. Meanwhile, Republicans are gaining ground in voter registrations; they won the state Senate in 2000, and are hoping to flip the state House in November for the first time since 1920.

Why the split personality? And what might it mean for McConnell and his ability to keep his seat after nearly three decades in Washington? Democratic challenger Grimes is expected to easily win her primary on Tuesday.

The reason for the Democratic registration advantage, say experts, is largely historical. These are “Democrats of heritage” – sons and daughters of Southern Democratic parents and grandparents who haven’t changed their registrations, even though their values are conservative, explains Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The registration pattern means that at the local level, if you want to have an impact on elections, in many counties you need to be with the party of numbers, the Democrats, and so the party affiliation has perpetuated itself.

Also a holdover from the past: Before merit-based hiring, jobs were the purview of the governor. “If you’re a contractor who wants a state contract, it was a benefit to you to be registered as a Democrat rather than a Republican,” says Joseph Gerth, political reporter for the Courier-Journal. That didn’t matter on the national level, where Democrats are "accustomed” to switching over and voting Republican, he says.

That won’t do much good for McConnell’s tea party challenger, Mr. Bevin, in Tuesday’s GOP primary – which is closed to Democrats, even conservative ones. Outside tea party organizations have invested more in Bevin’s race than in any other senatorial challenge in the country, and yet, he is still running far behind McConnell, down by 20 points according to last week’s Bluegrass Poll commissioned by Kentucky media.

Moreover, Bevin has proved to be a weak candidate. He still doesn't deliver a crisp, short, consistent stump speech, and he's made beginner errors – an inaccurate resume and speaking at a pro-cockfighting rally, an event illegal in the state – that have been easy for McConnell to exploit.

Last month, at a sparsely attended Bevin meet-and-greet at Bruce’s Grocery in rural Williamstown, Ky., a few of the listeners turned out to be conservative Democrats. One, a farmer named Virgil, said that “deep down” he’s a Republican at heart. Bevin thanked these Democrats for their interest but added, “In a primary, I need Republicans to show up.” He urged them to spread the word.

As for the general election, the challenge will be for Grimes to win back registered conservative Democrats who have been voting for McConnell for decades.

There’s no question that Kentuckians have conservative social values – on abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights, to name a few issues. And while 49 percent of registered voters have an unfavorable opinion of McConnell (a point Grimes plays up), they dislike Mr. Obama even more (57 percent unfavorable).

In Kentucky’s general election, voters’ hearts will matter; their party registration, much less so.

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