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KY-Senate: Is McConnell in Trouble?

Is Mitch McConnell the next Tom Daschle?

That is, has McConnell's position as leader of Senate Republicans done him enough political harm back home that he could lose a re-election bid come next November?

Mitch McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Dueling poll results released yesterday provide widely variant answers to that question.

A Research 2000 survey -- conducted for the Lexington Herald Leader from Oct. 22-24 -- showed McConnell receiving less than 50 percent of the vote in head-to-head matchups with four potential Democratic candidates. McConnell's job approval numbers are just as troubling -- 46 percent approve/47 percent disapprove. Those numbers indicate a real vulnerability. (Among independent voters, a critical group in any contested election, McConnell scores even lower -- with 37 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval.) McConnell's personal favorability ratings were only slightly better, with 47 percent of those polled of viewed him favorably as compared to 46 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

The McConnell campaign quickly released a survey of their own to rebut the Research 2000 results. In the McConnell poll, which was in the field from Oct. 21-23 and was conducted by Jan van Lohuizen, showed the Senator with a 57 percent approve/32 percent disapprove score. McConnell's fav/unfav was also considerably better (55/32). The campaign did not release any head-to-head numbers.

By way of comparison, the only other publicly released survey on McConnell of late was conducted by the Louisville Courier Journal and showed McConnell with a 54 percent/28 percent job approve/disapprove score -- far more in line with the results of McConnell's own survey rather than the Research 2000 data.

So, does McConnell have reason to worry?

"Yes, but" is the best answer we can muster at the moment.

Let's take the "yes" part first.

There's no question that the Republican brand in Kentucky is tarnished. Not only do Kentucky Republicans have to deal with the problems created by President Bush's low approval rating and voter worries over the war in Iraq (an issue for the GOP in nearly every state), but they also have to overcome the damage done by Gov. Ernie Fletcher's ethics scandals. Fletcher is almost certain to lose his re-election race early next month to former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear. For his part, McConnell pointedly refused to endorse Fletcher in his primary race against Rep. Anne Northup.

In the final weeks of the gubernatorial campaign, however, McConnell has stepped up his advocacy for Fletcher even appearing in ads currently running in which the senator says, "Ernie Fletcher has been the best governor for Louisville in my lifetime." Rest assured, you will hear those words again come next November as Democrats seek to tie Fletcher's problems around McConnell's ankles.

A politician as formidable as McConnell, however, won't be defeated by attempts to link him to the problems of Fletcher alone. What could be more problematic for McConnell is his role as leader of Senate Republicans. That perch makes McConnell the point person for the Bush administration in the Senate and has the potential to force him to fight for legislation -- especially surrounding the war in Iraq -- that can complicate his task of reaching out to voters at home.

A perceived difference between what McConnell says in Kentucky and what he does in Washington is dangerous to him politically; it was a chasm that Daschle, who was serving as leader of Senate Democrats during his 2004 re-election bid, was unable to bridge. Republicans effectively used positions Daschle was forced to stand behind as leader of the party to paint him as a Washington insider divorced from the beliefs and views of everyday South Dakotans. McConnell, like Daschle, has been pummeled on television by a variety of outside groups for stand he has taken as a GOP leader.

That brings us to the "but" part of our answer to the question of whether McConnell can be beaten.

The comparison between Daschle and McConnell works only to a point. While Daschle was a Democrat running in a state where Bush won by 22 points in 2004, McConnell is running as a Republican in a state that Bush carried by 20 points that same year.

The average South Dakota voter was clearly more conservative than Daschle and was open to an argument that he had "gone Washington." The average Kentucky voter is probably relatively close to McConnell ideologically even if they have soured on Bush and the war in Iraq.

The other major factor in McConnell's favor are his widely acknowledged -- even by Democrats -- fundraising and political skills.

At the end of September, McConnell had $6.8 million on hand and had already raised more than $9 million total for his race to date. Given his leadership post, McConnell will be able to raise and spend a lot of money -- ensuring that whoever runs against him is likely to be outspent, even when factoring in the huge financial advantage the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has over its Republican counterpart. Any Democratic challenger to McConnell will start in a HUGE financial hole that McConnell will do his best to dig deeper over the next few months.

And, love him or hate him, McConnell is a VERY savvy politician who understands what he needs to do to get elected even in an extremely tough political environment like this one. After defeating a Democratic incumbent in 1984, McConnell crushed former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane in 1990 and beat Beshear by 12 points six years later. In his last re-election race, McConnell took 65 percent of the vote.

Those results seem likely to keep Democrats' potential top recruit -- Rep. Ben Chandler -- out of the race. Chandler lost to Fletcher in the 2003 governor's race but bounced back to win a special election for Fletcher's Congressional seat the next year. Chandler has repeatedly expressed no interest in a challenge to McConnell and party insiders acknowledge there's no there there. (Chandler may be waiting until 2010 when Republican Sen. Jim Bunning is up for re-election.)

Without Chandler, Democrats are likely to turn to one (or several) individuals, a crowd that includes elected officials like state Attorney General Greg Stumbo state Auditor Crit Luallen, wealthy businessmen Bruce Lunsford and Greg Fischer or even failed 2006 Congressional candidate Andrew Horne.

According to the Research 2000 poll, Luallen is the Democrats' strongest candidate as McConnell leads her by just five points -- 45 percent to 40 percent. Luallen, who is expected to cruise to a second term next month, has refused to rule a challenge in or out. If she does run, it would mark a major step up for her; the money and attention of a contested Senate race is exponentially higher than that of a downballot statewide position.

We'll know more about where McConnell stands after Nov. 6. Assuming Fletcher loses, Democrats in the state (and nationally) may well be emboldened about their chances against McConnell and may be able to convince a top-tier candidate into the race.

Regardless of which Democrat runs, McConnell will not go quietly. He has a seasoned and well-respected political team around him who understand that he could be in for a real race (witness the release of internal polling hours after the Research 2000 numbers went public).

In a cycle where Democrats have opportunities all over the map, this seat is still a long shot. But, that doesn't mean there is no shot at all. Keep an eye on this race, which could develop into something interesting in coming months.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 30, 2007; 4:34 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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