Kentucky’s U.S. Senate candidates each brought valuable supporters during campaign stops last week in the eastern Kentucky coalfields, an area fast becoming a key battleground with coal a central issue in this fall’s election.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stumped with Republican Congressman Hal Rogers on a two-day tour through 10 counties that concluded Friday while Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes appeared with former President Bill Clinton in Lexington and Hazard on Wednesday.
Both candidates had plenty to gain in visiting the region, according to political analysts interviewed by The State Journal.
For Grimes, Clinton gives the Democratic nominee a fundraising boost and some distance from President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure in Kentucky generally and Appalachia especially. For McConnell, his tour with Rogers reinforces the five-term incumbent’s connection with a congressman who remains popular in the area.
“I think certainly she (Grimes) would rather be associated with the Clintons than Obama, that’s for sure. That’s obviously kind of a no-brainer,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ nonpartisan newsletter. “Whether that stuff actually moves votes or not, I don’t know.”
Clinton remains the last Democrat to win a federal election in Kentucky, twice taking the state’s eight Electoral College votes en route to the White House in 1992 and 1996. He handily won Perry County, where both McConnell and Grimes campaigned this week, and Pike County, the largest county in eastern Kentucky.
Obama has fared far worse in the state as a whole and those two counties in particular, even among Democrats.
Hillary Clinton won the 2008 Democratic primary in Kentucky against the president with 65.5 percent of the vote and a higher margin in Perry and Pike counties (87.1 percent and 90.9 percent, respectively).
Obama also lost to “uncommitted” in the 2012 Democratic primaries in those counties, with “uncommitted” carrying Perry County at 67.8 percent of the vote and Pike County with 65.3 percent.
Eastern Kentucky is an area where Grimes’ performance in this year’s Democratic primary generally lagged behind her statewide average against a slate of nondescript Democrats. She carried the state with 76.5 percent of the vote while in Perry County she earned 69.3 percent of the Democratic vote and 66.8 percent in Pike County. What’s more, Grimes trails McConnell in the region by 15 percent, according to the latest Bluegrass Poll commissioned by four Kentucky news outlets.
Clinton’s stop could help the first-term secretary of state’s support in coal country come Nov. 4, said Joe Gershtenson, a political science professor at Eastern Kentucky University. Clinton, too, helped draw a crowd of about 450 donors to Lexington for a $200 minimum fundraiser before the two trekked to Hazard.
“You’re talking about a former president who enjoyed significantly more popularity out there and can get crowds, get some excitement generated, and so absolutely I think it’s an effective technique for the campaign to do that,” Gershtenson said. “Not to mention the money out of it.”
Clinton, he said, should counteract some of McConnell’s points in linking Grimes with Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other national Democrats. Still, he says it’s difficult to determine whether Clinton’s Hazard stop Wednesday will draw scores of voters to her side on Election Day.
“It certainly helps some,” Gershtenson said. “Will it get her a lot of votes? Eh. I think it’s skeptical to say that this is a game-changing appearance.”
Rogers’ presence effective
McConnell’s bus tour with Rogers, of Somerset, puts the incumbent on stage with a congressman who has represented eastern Kentucky for more than 30 years and draws little political opposition, making Rogers an effective surrogate on the trail, Gershtenson said.
Rogers remains popular in the 5th Congressional District, Gershtenson said, and while McConnell’s favorability rating in the latest Bluegrass Poll trails his unfavorability rating 36 percent to 43 percent, his numbers essentially flipped in eastern Kentucky, where 43 percent of poll respondents favored him versus 39 percent who didn’t.
“Apart from any issues, the McConnell campaign probably hopes to just get some benefit from the popularity that Congressman Rogers enjoys in the district — somebody the district really looks to for leadership and guidance,” he said.
Kondik says Rogers doesn’t have the same star power as other national Republicans, but his tour with McConnell likely generated some attention from local media along the route. That could also help McConnell undercut some of the buzz from Clinton’s speech in Hazard, he said.
“I mean, look, this is all about earned media, basically, in these small markets, the local newspaper and whatever TV and radio might be there,” Kondik said. “So naturally Bill Clinton coming in is a real big deal for the people in that particular area, and so it makes sense that McConnell himself would want to come through and just sort of make sure he gets his own story as well.”
McConnell and Grimes remain in a dead heat in polling with less than three months until the election. Sabato’s Crystal Ball still predicts a McConnell win, pegging the Senate race “likely Republican.”
“That’s not a statement on how close we think the race is,” Kondik said. “It is, obviously, very close.”