Though different, Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes both have reasons to be thankful Republican Matt Bevin entered the contentious U.S. Senate race.
Tuesday marks three weeks until the May 20 primary between McConnell and Bevin, but the election seems a mere formality at this point, barring an unforeseen development. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Grimes, the Democratic frontrunner, have been readying for a head-to-head battle since Kentucky’s secretary of state announced her candidacy in July.
Formality or no, McConnell must still top Bevin in three weeks. While an intra-party challenge isn’t ideal, the five-term incumbent has avoided the tea party fervor that propelled U.S. Sen. Rand Paul into office four years ago. McConnell has held sizeable polling leads on Bevin throughout the primary season, most recently a 17-point advantage in a conservative-tilted survey released Friday.
Grimes, in the meantime, has had enough breathing room to build her campaign infrastructure and war chest in preparation for an election that could define the rest of her political career.
Anything can happen between now and May 20, but Bevin’s window to erase McConnell’s double-digit lead is closing fast.
Counting his chickens
Should McConnell win the Republican nomination as expected, he can point to March 29 as a definitive turning point in the race.
That’s when Bevin addressed about 700 cockfighting enthusiasts as they rallied in Corbin to legalize the underground spectator sport.
He initially denied knowledge of the cockfighting aspect of the meeting, describing the event as a “states’ rights” rally, but Louisville’s WAVE-TV released hidden camera footage Thursday shot by one of its reporters of Bevin, who spoke after an organizer made clear the gamefowl group’s agenda, addressing a question on whether he would vote to legalize cockfighting.
“Criminalizing behavior, if it’s part of the heritage of this state, is in my opinion a bad idea,” Bevin said in the WAVE-TV video.
The undisputed footage forced Bevin to issue an apology via press release, though he remained firm in his stance that states, not the federal government, should dictate animal rights laws.
“I am genuinely sorry that my attendance at an event which, other than my comments, appears to have primarily involved a discussion of cockfighting, has created concern on the part of many Kentucky voters. I understand that concern,” Bevin said in a statement Friday. “I am not and have never been, a supporter of cockfighting or any other forms of animal cruelty.”
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore called the revelation “one of the most disqualifying moments in Kentucky political history.”
Should Bevin fall in the primary as projected, McConnell will have sidestepped tea party discontent that has doomed other longtime Republican lawmakers in recent elections.
The same Gravis Marketing poll that showed McConnell with a 17-point lead on Bevin among 638 Republican voters also found some vulnerability on McConnell’s right flank — 46 percent of the survey’s 1,359 respondents said the incumbent has not done enough to end the Affordable Care Act and 37 percent said he is not as conservative today as when he took office.
Kentucky hasn’t been immune to the conservative groundswell following President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. McConnell watched in 2010 as his handpicked successor to retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, fell to an upstart Paul, who rode a wave of tea party momentum to a 23-point victory in the Republican primary en route to the U.S. Senate.
And as he eyes other GOP Senate races, McConnell must notice the tea party’s impact elsewhere.
Politico profiled such an election Thursday in Oklahoma, where well-known tea party favorites such as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have pushed T.W. Shannon, the former Oklahoma House speaker, into the election’s driver’s seat.
In two months, polling numbers swung 45 points in Shannon’s favor over U.S. Rep. James Lankford — himself elected with tea party backing. Both are vying to complete the two years remaining on retiring GOP Sen. Tom Coburn’s term.
Palin teased involvement in Kentucky’s Senate race in an October Facebook post that included an article critical of McConnell’s role in brokering an agreement on the federal debt ceiling, but she has not endorsed Bevin.
Without a considerable threat to his right, McConnell’s camp is confident he will have little difficulty drawing Bevin supporters and conservative Democrats come Election Day.
“We feel very comfortable about where we’re at in the general election and confident that Mitch McConnell will return Kentucky’s voice to the Senate as majority leader next year,” Moore said in a statement to The State Journal.
From the ground up
Grimes, too, has Bevin to thank for drawing McConnell’s fire as she establishes her campaign apparatus.
Granted, her press secretary Charly Norton has been busy fending off attacks from McConnell’s campaign and the Republican Party of Kentucky while pointing out the incumbent’s missteps on the trail, but Grimes has avoided serious spending on advertising as she readies her Senate bid for a post-primary push. The GOP primary has forced McConnell to focus his resources on Bevin rather than Grimes, allowing her to fundraise, network and strategize largely unfettered.
The result? McConnell still holds a fundraising advantage, but what started as a 5-to-1 lead has been cut to about 2-to-1. McConnell reported $10.4 million on hand compared to Grimes’ $4.9 million as of March 31, the end of this year’s first fundraising quarter.
Grimes led McConnell in first-quarter campaign receipts, $2.7 million to $2.4 million respectively, but the incumbent spent $2.9 million as the primary campaign ramped up.
While McConnell holds a sizeable polling lead on Bevin, that’s not the case with Grimes — nearly every survey has shown a virtual deadlock in recent months.
Grimes’ campaign remains bullish about the first-term secretary of state’s chances of unseating McConnell in what will be a heated, high-profile contest. Norton said the Grimes has gained wide support from Democrats, Republicans and independents on the trail.
“The choice is clear and simple — for the next six years, does Kentucky want a senator who will fight every day to create and save jobs or one that has given up and simply doesn’t care,” Norton told The State Journal. “Alison has the energy to fight for jobs, the plan to create jobs and the understanding that this election is about tomorrow and Kentucky’s future.”