Kentucky Politics

Amy McGrath has had some good fortune the past few months in her long shot Senate campaign against Mitch McConnell. None of the Democrats running to her left in the primary (most notably Mike Broihier and Charles Booker) have really galvanized the state’s liberals — and the COVID-19 outbreak has made it even harder for them to get attention and gain major followings. So McGrath is not only likely to easily win the June 23 Democratic primary, but she hasn’t really needed to take a lot of liberal positions that might hurt her in the general election in this conservative-leaning state. McConnell is taking some fairly controversial positions of late, most notably his initial opposition to providing federal aid to states to help them make up for virus-related budget shortfalls.

Finally, Joe Biden’s victory in the Democratic presidential primary is ideal for McGrath, both because her left-but-not-that-left brand of politics are aligned with the former vice president’s and because Sen. Bernie Sanders had the potential to lose really badly in Kentucky and potentially drag down McGrath and other Democrats with him if he were the Democratic nominee.

So could McGrath actually win? A Democrat last won a U.S Senate race in Kentucky in 1992 (Wendell Ford.) She’s still very much a long shot. But looking at recent polls and Democrat Andy Beshear’s victory in last year’s gubernatorial race, there does appear to be a path for a McGrath victory, although it is fairly narrow. Here’s what that path might look like:

 

1. Trump wins Kentucky by less than in 2016

 

Trump won the state by 30 percentage points in 2016. Such a margin just makes it really really hard for Democrats down ballot to win — huge numbers of voters would have to split their votes among the two parties. Trump is almost certain to win Kentucky again this November — it’s unlikely Biden will even contest the state. That said, the smaller Trump’s margin, the better for McGrath. (Or another Democrat if he or she wins the primary in a major upset.) And it seems likely that Trump will win Kentucky by less than he did four years ago.

Why? First of all, Trump is less popular in Kentucky now. In January 2017, 61 percent of voters in Kentucky approved of Trump, compared to just 27 percent who did not, according to the polling firm Morning Consult. But a more recent Morning Consult poll (February 2020) found Trump’s approval in Kentucky at 57 percent, while 40 percent disapproved of him. Recent polling from the firm Civiqs showed Trump at 58 percent approval, 39 percent disapproval, compared to 57-35 at the start of his tenure.

Secondly, Kentucky voters will probably view Biden more favorably than Clinton. The former vice president just hasn’t been the center of attacks from conservatives for years, as Clinton had been. It’s also likely that at least a small bloc of the state’s voters hated Clinton in part because she is a woman. A poll conducted last year by conservative firm Fabrizio Ward LLC, which worked with Trump on his 2016 campaign, found the president ahead 53-41 in a hypothetical match-up against Biden in Kentucky. I  think Trump will win Kentucky by more than 12 percentage points, but less than 30.

 

2. Jefferson and Fayette counties keep getting more Democratic

 

2012 Romney v Obama — Obama wins Jefferson County by 11 percentage points, Fayette by 1

2014 Grimes v. McConnell — Grimes win Jefferson by 14, Fayette by 6

2016 Trump v. Clinton — Clinton wins Jefferson by 13, Fayette by 10

2018 Kentucky state House races — Dems win Jefferson by 30, Fayette by 28

2019 Cameron vs. Stumbo — Stumbo wins Jefferson by 19, Fayette by 18

2019 Bevin v. Beshear — Beshear wins Jefferson by 36, Fayette by 33

The evidence from recent statewide races suggests that Kentucky’s biggest and more urban counties are getting more Democratic — and that this leftward shift was happening before the rise of Trump but that he may be accelerating it. Bevin was particularly unpopular and that boosted Beshear, but even somewhat weak Democratic candidates (Clinton, Stumbo) were really strong in those two counties. It appears Kentucky is seeing the same trend that is happening throughout the country — urban areas are becoming Democratic-leaning while more rural ones are becoming more conservative.

I would expect this trend to continue — and for McConnell and Trump to lose in Jefferson and Fayette counties by more than they did their previous elections.

Eric Hyers, who was Beshear’s campaign manager, said the gains Beshear made in Jefferson and Fayette counties were part of a general pattern happening across the country in the Trump era: Republicans struggling in the suburbs. He noted that Beshear did much better than previous Democrats in suburban areas of eastern Jefferson County and won traditionally-Republican Campbell and Kenton counties, both of which are in the Cincinnati area.

For the Democrats to defeat McConnell, “that suburban shift needs to continue,” said Hyers, who is now running a Super PAC called the Save America Fund that is working to defeat the longtime Republican senator.

3. McGrath builds a McGrath-Trump bloc

Even with huge margins in Jefferson and Fayette counties, Beshear could not have won without making substantial gains compared to other Democrats

  1. In the state’s more rural areas
  2. With Republicans.

McGrath will probably need to do the same.

Beshear won 16% of voters who identified themselves as Republicans and 15% of those who said they had favorable views of Trump, according to an exit poll conducted by a group of researchers from Centre College, Campbellsville University, Morehead State University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Pennsylvania. (I assume many Republicans and Trump approvers are the same people.) The Republican-Beshear voters tended to be under 50 years old, according to the exit poll.

The researchers estimated that 8% of Kentucky’s voters overall in 2019 were Republicans who backed Beshear — a very important bloc, considering the Democrat won the election by 0.4%. Beshear did significantly better than Clinton did in 2016 in Eastern Kentucky in particular, also suggesting that some Trump backers embraced him.

Can McGrath also win over some Trump voters? Maybe. Polls suggest that McConnell is not as popular with Kentucky’s Republicans as Trump. The 2019 exit poll had Trump at 88% favorable/12% unfavorable among Republicans, compared to McConnell’s 74/26. McGrath, like Beshear, has been careful not to bash the president too much in her campaign, although she did support his removal from office over his effort to get the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. And perhaps voters in Kentucky turn on McConnell the same way that they turned on Bevin.

“I’ve talked to Republicans who won’t support Bevin or McConnell who are still for Trump,” said Chuck Eddy, a self-described moderate, “Never Trump” Republican who organized a “Republicans for Beshear” group last year. Eddy, who lives in Lexington, said he will vote against McConnell and Trump this November.

On the other hand, the 2019 governor’s race is not a perfect parallel to this year’s Senate contest, because governors races tend to be more localized and Senate races more nationalized. In 2016, every U.S. Senate election was won by the same party that won the presidential race in that state. Also, McConnell and his allies are likely to run tens of millions worth of television ads attacking McGrath and suggesting her positions are akin to those of Sanders.

“Right now, I don’t think McGrath can win because the data doesn’t think so, and the data was right last time, BUT, if I should see evidence of crossover support in polling in that race, I will reassess,” elections expert forecaster Rachel Bitcofer of the Washington-D.C. based Niskanen Center wrote recently. (“Last time” referred to McGrath losing her 2018 House race.)

Eddy said Bevin’s rhetoric attacking teachers particularly irritated some of the Republicans that he knows, and that McConnell hasn’t made any comments that resonated that negatively among more conservative voters.

“Every vote of a Republican against McConnell will be very hard fought,” he said.

“Is the unpopularity of Bevin similar to the unpopularity of McConnell? It’s a good question,” said Benjamin Knoll, a Centre College political science professor who was part of the team that conducted the 2019 exit poll of the governor’s race.

I’m pretty sure that Biden will do better than Clinton in Kentucky and that Louisville and Lexington voters will be very anti-Trump/McConnell in November. So building some kind of pro-Trump, anti-McConnell constituency is perhaps the most important task for McGrath in the next few months — and convincing Republicans and conservative-leaning independents that a vote for McGrath is akin to a vote against Trump is an important task for the McConnell campaign.

Whether or not these candidates and their campaigns are able to execute these tasks will be really important, both for Kentucky and the country. McConnell is not just a senator from Kentucky, but in many ways the most important figure in American government. McGrath doesn’t have a great shot at defeating him, but if she did, it would be one of the biggest and most important upsets in modern political history.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.