How did Mitch McConnell end up winning so easily?

As recently as last month, Sen. Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger was neck-and-neck with him in polls. But Senator McConnell is a seasoned politician who ran a smart campaign.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky.,Tuesday.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell won reelection easily on Tuesday, defeating Barack Obama in his Kentucky Senate race.

What, Mr. Obama wasn’t on the ballot? Senator McConnell’s opponent was Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes?

Yes and yes. But McConnell tied Ms. Grimes to Obama and administration coal policies that are highly unpopular in coal-dependent sections of the state. He hammered that connection home in ad after ad in the closing days of the campaign, helped by Grimes’s fumbling response to the question of whether she’d voted for the president from her own party.

Obama’s approval rating in Kentucky is some ten points lower than his low-40s national average. That was an obstacle for Grimes that she just couldn’t overcome.

“Make no mistake: tonight is a repudiation of President Obama’s policies,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky at McConnell’s victory party, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.

McConnell also took the possibility of defeat seriously from the start of the campaign. He was not going to be Richard Lugar, the veteran Indiana Republican swept from his Senate seat in 2012 in large part because voters decided he was a creature of Washington, not a Hoosier.

McConnell’s mediocre approval ratings drew a tea party-backed primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. But Bevin’s polished manner wilted under harsh attacks on his business practices from McConnell and establishment GOP super political action committees.

Grimes ran a hard campaign and Democrats hoped for an upset in a state where Obamacare, repackaged as the state’s Kynect health exchange, was fairly popular and successful. As recently as early October some polls showed her only three or so points behind.

But the fundamental rightward tilt of Kentucky reasserted itself in the end. By Election Day most forecasters had McConnell as the overwhelming favorite and the race was quickly called in his favor after polls closed. National Democrats may wish they’d diverted money from the state to closer races in Georgia and Iowa, in the end.

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