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Ignore the Polls: McConnell Is Still the Favorite in Kentucky

The last few weeks have been full of bad news for Senator Mitch McConnell. He earned a long awaited tea party challenger and, yesterday, two polls showed Allison Lundergan Grimes, the likely Democratic nominee, ahead by 1 and 2 points. As a result, Democrats are starting to believe they have a good chance in Kentucky. They shouldn’t get their hopes up. Certainly not yet.

Mitch McConnell is a clear favorite because he’s a Republican incumbent running in a red state, assuming he wins the primary. Perhaps this obvious point is overlooked because of its simplicity, but the fact is that incumbents don’t often lose on friendly terrain. No blue state Democratic incumbent lost in 2010. The only red state Republican incumbent who lost in 2008 was Ted Stevens, who was battling corruption charges and still only lost by a narrow margin. In 2006, Republican incumbents lost painfully close Senate races in Montana and Missouri, but it’s worth recalling that those were also the two closest red states of the 2008 presidential election, where McCain won by 2.38 and 0.13 points, respectively. In comparison, Kentucky went to McCain by 16 points and Romney by 23.

Of course, Democrats aren’t likely to get another 2006 or 2008 in 2014. Even if they did, a red state incumbent Republican would still be well positioned. If you don’t believe me, recall McConnell’s 2008 reelection campaign. The economy collapsed and McConnell was forced to shepherd TARP to passage in the Senate. McConnell’s approval ratings were about as bad in 2008 as they are now—here’s a sample of 44, 40, 44 from SurveyUSA. But, in the end, a Democratic victory required too many votes from conservative, McCain-Bush-Romney voters. It just wasn’t happening.

Things have only gotten worse for Kentucky Democrats since 2008. The Obama administration’s “War on Coal” has dealt a devastating blow to Democratic fortunes in “Coal Country.” Democratic Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia all ran behind traditional Democratic benchmarks in Appalachia in 2012. This was true in Kentucky in 2010, as well. Rand Paul won by a 5 point wider margin than McConnell in 2008, but Paul’s made much bigger gains in coal country—where Paul ran much as 18 points ahead of McConnell.

Historically, this is the most heavily-Democratic part of the Blue Grass state. In the past, competitive or winning Democrats would win eastern Kentucky coal country by a big margin—winning a place like Knott County by 60 points. Even non-competitive, like Kerry or Gore, would win Knott County by a big margin. But the days of running up the score in coal country are probably over: Obama lost Knott County by 50 points; Conway only won by 6.

As a result, the traditional Democratic path to victory in Kentucky, which was already narrow, might not even exist anymore—at least for a candidate seeking federal office. Grimes will need to compensate by doing even better in the western two-thirds of Kentucky than Democrats have needed in the past. As a result, the burden on Grimes to win over Republican-leaning voters is greater than it was for Lunsford in 2008. And winning over those Republican-leaning voters will be more difficult without a wave election, let alone with President Obama waging a "War on Coal" from the White House.

Yesterday’s polls don’t change any of this. The surveys show Grimes in the low-to-mid forties; not bad, but nothing that Lunsford or Conway couldn’t manage at various points, and less than Lunsford and Conway’s actual support in the 2008 and 2010 Senatorial elections. Put differently, there’s not yet evidence that Grimes is making inroads into Kentucky’s Republican coalition beyond what’s relatively typical for Democratic senatorial candidates. That’s not very surprising, since these Republican-leaning undecided voters can see the “D” next to Grimes and don’t know much about her. For now, they can stay undecided.

But eventually, Republican-leaning voters will make a choice. And since Kentucky’s undecided Romney voters don’t know much about Grimes, yesterday’s “snapshot” of the race doesn’t tell us much about what they’ll eventually decide. The competitiveness of this contest hinges on whether Grimes can win the battle to distinguish herself from the national party. If she’s just another Democrat, then yesterday’s polls are all but irrelevant: McConnell will ultimately launch his attacks on Grimes and she will lose. If you’re going to pay attention to anything at this stage, follow whether Grimes can define herself as a populist, conservative, Kentucky Democrat. If she can do so, it’ll be a tight race. But even if she does succeed at forcing a close contest, whether she can get over the top is another hurdle. History and partisanship suggest that McConnell would still be a relatively clear favorite in a close contest.