Senate elections 101: Kentucky conflicted about Mitch McConnell

Kentuckians aren't overly pleased with incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. But they like President Obama even less, which makes things hard for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Pablo Alcala/The Lexington Herald-Leader/AP/File
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, rehearsed before their appearance on 'Kentucky Tonight' in Lexington, Ky., earlier this month.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

Kentucky's Senate race, one of the most closely watched in the country, boils down to which Washington insider is worse in the eyes of voters:

Is it Republican Mitch McConnell, dubbed by Democrats as the “guardian of gridlock” in the Senate? He has a miserable approval rating of just 37 percent among likely Kentucky voters, according to the latest Bluegrass Poll for local media.

Or is it President Obama, who has an even lower approval rating of 27 percent in the Bluegrass state?

The president, of course, is not on the ballot, but incumbent Senator McConnell has put him there. Ads, mailers, campaign speeches all identify Democrat candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes as the president’s twin. 

Her protestations seem only to amplify the issue, as did her recent refusal to answer journalists’ questions about whether she had voted for Mr. Obama in 2012 and 2008.

“In this race, McConnell is running against Obama more than against Grimes. And she is running from Obama, as you can see from her reluctance to say whether she voted for him,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. 

“I think Obama is the driving force, as in other races,” he observes.

Ms. Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of state, has tried to make the race about the evils of gridlock under McConnell as Senate minority leader. He’s gummed up the wheels of government and put down the middle class and women, she charges. After 30 years in office, it’s time to toss him.

McConnell’s ace is that, in a red state like Kentucky, while many voters may not like him, they like Obama even less. And they don’t like the demise of the state’s coal industry – which McConnell and many Kentuckians blame on the president’s environmental regulations.

Coal is a powerful swing issue that Republicans can use to sway Democratic voters in coal country, observers point out. Mr. Cross believes the race, which McConnell is leading according to polls, may well be determined in the coal fields of eastern and western Kentucky.

“We have an unpopular senator who leads the resistance against an unpopular president,” says Stephen Voss, political scientist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

If Grimes pulls it out, he says, it will be because of unhappiness with McConnell and the legislative branch he leads, as well as a sense that Kentuckians want public policies that do more to help the needy, he says.

He advises not to count out Grimes, as does Joseph Gerth, political reporter for the Courier-Journal in Louisville.

What Grimes has going for her, is that Democrats are more enthused in Kentucky than are Republicans, precisely because of McConnell’s high negatives, Mr. Gerth writes in an e-mail. That differs from elsewhere in the country.

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