Primary day: Mitch McConnell cruising in Kentucky?

Lots of smart political people thought tea party-affiliated challenger Matt Bevin might give Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell a tough race, but that hasn’t developed, according to polls.

John Sommers II/Reuters
Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and his wife Elaine Chao arrive at Bellarmine University to cast their ballots during Kentucky's primary elections in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2014. McConnell is running against Republican challenger Matt Bevin.

It appears as if Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is going to cruise to victory in his Kentucky GOP primary election Tuesday.

Lots of smart political people thought tea party-affiliated challenger Matt Bevin might give Senator McConnell a tough race, but that hasn’t developed. A Survey USA Bluegrass Poll for major Kentucky media organizations puts McConnell 20 points up on Bevin, 55 to 35 percent, among likely primary voters.

McConnell’s seniority remains a big selling point with state Republicans. Fifty-five percent of GOP respondents in the Bluegrass Poll say his time in office and Senate standing is important to the state, as opposed to 38 percent who say he’s been in office too long. Fifty percent of Republican voters say Bevin is too inexperienced and would be worse than McConnell at attracting benefits for Kentucky from Washington.

We’ll stop here for the caveat – this is just one poll, and in the actual election on Tuesday, results may vary. Primaries are particularly difficult to predict because the percentage of voters that shows up can be quite small. Headlines tomorrow might herald Bevin’s victory. Truman beat Dewey, after all.

But a 20-point lead leaves a lot of margin for error, and this poll is right in line with other surveys stretching back to last year. In August 2013, a Wenzel Strategies survey showed McConnell up by a margin of 3 to 1; in January, a Human Events/Gravis poll put him up by 22 points.

So we’ll ask the question: did this primary battle get too much hype? (We include ourselves here – when Gravis showed the lead at 22 points, we talked about the McConnell-Bevin contest “tightening.”)

McConnell took Bevin seriously. The Senate minority leader has already spent some $11 million on the race, attacking Bevin and touting the benefits of his own years of service. But it looks like it was never close. Maybe McConnell has his own campaign to thank for that. Or maybe ditching a powerful incumbent senator in a primary is really hard and seldom happens, and the political press hypes the possibility of a close race for its own purposes.

Yes, if Bevin pulls a Truman-like upset, this story will look bad.

The general election may be tougher for McConnell. Polls show him neck and neck with likely Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.

However, The New York Times’ Upshot political forecasting model, which takes into account other stuff besides polls, such as money and the advantage of incumbency, rates Kentucky’s Republican candidate as having an 80 percent chance to win in the fall. Other forecast models rate Ms. Grimes’ chances higher but still point to the likelihood of McConnell remaining in office in the fall.

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