Rating Alison Lundergan Grimes’ Chances in Kentucky

Stuart Rothenberg July 10, 2013 · 9:30 AM EDT

Does the candidacy of Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, change McConnell’s re-election prospects? The answer depends on whether you think she will be 2014’s version of Linda Lingle or Heidi Heitkamp.

Lingle, a former two-term Republican governor of Hawaii, was unable to overcome her partisan label in a state that President Barack Obama won with more than 70 percent of the vote. While Lingle ran almost 10 points ahead of Mitt Romney in the Aloha State, she got buried in her bid for the Senate in 2012.

On the other hand, Heitkamp, a Democrat and former North Dakota attorney general, ran almost 12 points ahead of Obama in the Peace Garden State, enabling her to squeeze out a very narrow Senate victory.

Grimes, 34, was elected as Kentucky’s secretary of state in 2011 with more than 60 percent of the vote in her first bid for public office. Before that, she was an attorney in Lexington. She is an attractive and articulate young woman who comes from a very politically active family.

Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former state Democratic Party chairman and friend of President Bill Clinton (Lundergan’s catering business catered Chelsea Clinton’s wedding). Her mother is the current Democratic National Committeewoman from the Bluegrass State.

One Democratic group, The Atlas Project, asserted that Grimes is a “formidable candidate” and a “rising star” in her party. But her single electoral success in a downballot contest during a year when the popular incumbent Democratic governor easily won re-election doesn’t prove either assessment.

Democrats hope that Grimes’ lack of a legislative record, combined with McConnell’s mediocre poll numbers, will allow her to pull an upset over McConnell, 71, who was first elected to the Senate almost 30 years ago, in 1984.

McConnell won by almost 30 points in 2002 and by more than a dozen points in 1996. But he was re-elected in 1990 by just 4 points, and he won his last race, in 2008, by only 6 points.

Public polling shows McConnell doesn’t begin his bid for re-election with a reservoir of good will. An early April survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found him leading Grimes by only 4 points, 45 percent to 41 percent, and a late May PPP survey found the two candidates tied at 45 percent. Most polls, however, suggest the GOP senator holds a single-digit lead over Grimes.

Multiple polls show more state voters disapprove of McConnell’s job performance than approve, and Democrats say that more Kentucky voters now say that they want to replace McConnell than to re-elect him, a far different situation from polling conducted in 2002 and 2008, the last two times the Kentucky Republican faced voters.

McConnell does not start off his bid for a fifth term in a strong position, but our ratings are not based primarily on the current situation. Nor do they seek to classify races in terms of their eventual margin of victory. Instead, ratings constitute our assessment of where a race is most likely to end up on Election Day.

McConnell’s longevity (and age) could be a liability for him, as could his position of leadership in an unpopular institution. Two Democratic Senate leaders, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle and Nevada’s Harry Reid, faced the same problem. Daschle lost re-election, while Reid survived.

But Daschle faced a much stronger challenger — now-Sen. John Thune — than McConnell is facing, and South Dakota’s partisanship certainly was a disadvantage for Daschle. Reid faced a weak challenger in a very competitive state. Kentucky’s strong conservative, anti-Obama bent is much more favorable for McConnell.

Grimes is a stronger challenger to McConnell than actress Ashley Judd would have been. Judd has plenty of obvious political baggage while Grimes has relatively little.

“It’s going to be hard for McConnell to run his typical type of campaign: attack the stuffing out of his opponent,” one Republican acknowledged to me recently.

But while Grimes can run against Congress, present herself as a force for compromise, portray McConnell as yesterday’s news and pick apart his record as she delivers a call for change, the Republican incumbent will not be silent. He will try to make the Kentucky Senate race a referendum on Obama, much as Republican candidates succeeded in doing across the country in 2010, the last midterm balloting.

Midterm dynamics are different from presidential years, when voters have multiple votes — one for president and one for the Senate. In a midterm, a vote in a U.S. Senate or House race is also the only opportunity for a voter to send a message about the president and his performance.

Kentucky was Obama’s seventh-worst state in 2012 (and ninth-worst in 2008). He drew just 38.5 percent of the vote, down 3 points from his 2008 showing. That gives McConnell fertile political soil in which to work.

Grimes surely will want to keep the focus on McConnell, but the Democrat was part of Kentucky’s delegation to the 2012 Democratic National Convention that nominated Obama, and she will be forced to take positions on or answer questions about Obama’s health care law and the president’s position on coal and energy. Given the likelihood that national Democratic and liberal groups will rally behind Grimes, the race is likely to take on larger implications, which actually benefits McConnell.

If you are looking for very recent examples of this, consider both the Massachusetts Senate special election and the special election in South Carolina’s 1st District, where Mark Sanford, who began with stupendous negatives, defeated a Democratic opponent in a reliably Republican district. In both cases, partisanship appears to have been a crucial factor in voters’ decisions. That is where federal races differ from state contests.

Though I have not yet met Grimes and I don’t know how the contest will unfold, I have to rate the race now. It certainly is neither Safe for McConnell nor a Toss-Up. Rating the race now as either Leaning Republican or Republican Favored (Likely Republican, in some ratings) seems reasonable to me.

For me, the burden is on the candidate who must overcome a strong partisan bent against his or her party in a contest for federal office. Massachusetts Republican Gabriel Gomez and Hawaii’s Lingle couldn’t, but Heitkamp did. Obama’s weakness in Kentucky during a midterm election and Grimes’ inexperience suggests that she will have a very tough job beating the incumbent, though I expect the race to be close.

Until I see evidence — and I will be looking for it — that swing voters and an overwhelming percentage of moderates are willing to not only fire McConnell but also send another Democrat to the Senate in spite of the state’s dissatisfaction with Obama, this race looks like Republican Favored for now.