Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate for the last 30 years and is practically an American institution. There are whole generations of Americans who have never experienced a McConnell-less senate in their entire voting lives, but a close election race is threatening to change all that. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state for Kentucky, is the Democratic opponent McConnell is facing. She is out-fundraising him and has had a slight lead in the polls at certain points. This is creating speculation about who could be the new senate minority leader if she wins the race, though there are also plenty of true believers who say that the senior Republican will win. Overall, Mitch McConnell’s senate race is creating anxiety for Republicans who see a possible Eric Cantor situation on the horizon.
Cantor’s defeat in the primary left a leadership vacancy for ambitious Republicans to fill. A similar situation could happen in the Senate where McConnell is the ranking Republican. Just who would take his place is a matter of debate. Names like John Thune and John Cornyn have both been floated as possible contenders, but there seems to be no consensus over who is the heir apparent. This is in part because no one expected the race in Kentucky to be as close as it is. McConnell’s seat has been safe for 30 years, which is a lifetime in political terms. He has been popular with the largely Republican voters of the state, but the advent of the Tea Party has been a monkey-wrench in the party system. Things just are not as safe as they once were, a fact many Republicans are finding out the hard way.
McConnell is an old campaigner, though, and he has enough experience to draw from that unemployment could possibly be avoided. Unlike Cantor who was too relaxed about his campaign, the Senate minority leader is being proactive in his own race. Fundraising and political ads are dotting the landscape, as is his appearance at Kentucky’s Fancy Farm. His strategy seems clear at this stage. In his speech over the weekend, he firmly placed Grimes in Obama’s camp, hoping to associate her with the unpopular president and paint her as just more of the same liberal way of running things. His speech was met with some of the most civil cheers and boos the event saw all weekend.
What would be a good strategy at any other midterm election, however, is harder to sell in 2014. It is not Obama that Kentucky voters seem to be disaffected with. Instead it is McConnell himself who has grown tiresome. When McConnell referenced the serious problems facing the nation, one crowd member piped up with “You.” After 30 years, Kentucky voters seem to want someone different representing them in the Senate. Mitch McConnell simply does not do it for them anymore and that has to be causing a lot of anxiety for him over this particular senate race.
Republican voters seem to be the ones driving this change, not Kentucky Democrats.. Many Tea Party voters supported Matt Bevin in the primary, but were disappointed when the Republican establishment won through. Now, Matt Bevin and many of his supporters are refusing to endorse McConnell in the senate race. Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, said he was not endorsing the minority leader and that many voters would probably vote for Libertarian candidate David Patterson instead of McConnell or Grimes. He called it a “lesser of two evils” approach to voting and right now, McConnell is not the lesser.
There is plenty of establishment wisdom out there, though, that has McConnell winning his re-election bid, though after the stunning loss of Eric Cantor it seems more like hubris than actual wisdom. The current political situation has proven that there is no such thing as a sure bet in these midterm elections. All the support McConnell has from senate Republicans could be nothing more than hedging of bets. Orrin Hatch of Utah told Politico that John Cornyn would probably be the new minority leader even as he said, “I don’t expect McConnell to lose.” He repeated this sentiment again in the space of two sentences leaving many people thinking he protested too much. The fact is, no one knows whether McConnell will win or lose and it is a scary thought for Republicans in the senate right now.
The latest poll from Kentucky had McConnell ahead of Grimes, but it was by too small a margin to allay anyone’s fears. The existence of Patterson as the Libertarian candidate who had eight percent support in the poll could split the vote, which would be bad news for McConnell. Right now he is behind in the money race as Grimes out-fundraises him by almost $1 million. With roughly four months left before the November election, Mitch McConnell has to be feeling a lot of anxiety over the state of his senate race and will no doubt use his summer vacation to shore up any loose ends that could cost him the election.
By Lydia Bradbury