Sam Youngman: State of the Kentucky Senate race: Everybody needs to get better

Herald-Leader political writerNovember 10, 2013 

Less than a year from Election Day 2014, there is no clear front-runner in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.

Much like the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team, the campaigns are showing early sloppiness. They will need to sharpen their game going forward if they hope to win the title next year.

The Political Paddock, based on observations and conversations with Kentucky voters and politicos, breaks down where each of the three campaigns stands.

Mitch McConnell

Kentucky's five-term senator is running hard, but he's doing it in quicksand.

McConnell's favorability numbers are dreadful, and there is little reason to think he can change them much. The senator is a thoroughly known commodity in the state and nationally, which is causing him several problems.

For starters, McConnell faces the nearly impossible task of repositioning himself with voters as an agent of compromise. If Kentuckians don't already think of McConnell as a leader who gets things done, he will have a hard time convincing them he's not a "guardian of gridlock," as Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has labeled him.

The senator's best effort in correcting the course is oddly coming from his opponents. Ads supporting Grimes paint McConnell as an obstructionist, while those supporting Republican Matt Bevin's campaign portray the senator as a liberal who caved during the government shutdown. The conflicting messages might confuse voters about what exactly McConnell has been doing in Washington.

Meanwhile, McConnell's war with Bevin and the Tea Party fundraising groups backing him is a larger undertaking than it seems right now, and it probably will take its toll.

The viciousness of McConnell's campaign against Bevin might well knock out the challenger, but negative campaigns almost always drive down the attacking candidate's favorable numbers, and McConnell's are already in the basement.

One area in which the senator might find room to fight Grimes is on the issues. McConnell is positioning himself with firm stances, using Senate floor speeches to clearly define where he stands on right-to-work legislation, health care, environmental regulations and other issues sure to play big in the commonwealth next year. His actions contrast the unsure early positioning of Grimes.

McConnell has scheduled a news conference Tuesday in Louisville, where he is expected to start trying to draw out Grimes on the issues, beginning with President Barack Obama's maligned health care law.

Although his re-election prospects appear bleak, McConnell is a seasoned campaigner, and by all accounts he has his combat boots on.

Alison Lundergan Grimes

The Democratic candidate is essentially running two campaigns. She's doing well in the race to win over the New York and Washington media sets, but she has a lot of work ahead to win the race for Kentucky voters.

Grimes continues to run a dangerously cautious campaign, tiptoeing into issues debates and putting focus on national fundraisers and media instead of making Kentucky the center of her attention. (Granting an interview with Elle magazine before any Kentucky reporters was a pretty significant slight to a press corps already frustrated by a lack of accessibility).

Grimes' slow growth as a candidate presents two potential hazards: It gives the perception that the campaign lacks confidence in the candidate; and rare appearances magnify whatever mistakes the first-time federal candidate might make.

If Grimes is speaking several times a week, she has room to fix mistakes as she goes. If she speaks rarely and makes a gaffe, the mistake will be amplified exponentially.

Grimes is unmistakably well positioned to win next year, another reflection of McConnell's weak polling numbers. But if she is lulled into false confidence by glowing reports from left-leaning national media outlets and polling firms, Grimes probably will wake up to a harsh reality next November.

She has time to grow as a candidate, but she needs to start showing an effort to do so quickly. Kentuckians want to know what kind of senator she'll be.

Voters are seriously unhappy with McConnell, making this Grimes' race to lose. If she doesn't put more attention on Kentuckians fast, she might well be on the path to do so.

Matt Bevin

The best three words to sum up Bevin's chances for upsetting McConnell in the May 20 primary are "we don't know."

Of the three candidates, Bevin is working the hardest, keeping a full campaign schedule and making the rounds with local and national media.

He is enjoying national attention because of McConnell's declared war with Tea Party fundraising groups, but it's difficult if not impossible to tell whether he's getting any traction from it.

Bevin desperately needs money. His campaign has said during the past two weeks that the Louisville businessman is enjoying the best fundraising success of his campaign, but that is a pretty low bar to clear after his anemic third-quarter report.

Bevin's end-of-the-year fundraising report will tell a lot about the viability of his campaign. But in the absence of credible, objective polling (a very expensive endeavor), whether Bevin is making any movement is nearly impossible to read beyond anecdotal evidence of growing support.

Expect the unexpected

There are dozens of variables that can change the fortunes of all three candidates in the blink of an eye, and the best advice for the coming year might be to expect the unexpected.

Politics could accurately be measured in dog years, and the Paddock expects all three campaigns to enjoy a 2014 of dizzying highs and lows.

In the coming weeks and months, we will be paying special attention to what kind of ground games the campaigns are building, as turnout operations could be the key difference in what probably will be a close race until the end.

Buckle up, Bluegrass. We're just getting started.

Send us a question

The Paddock would like to hear from you. During the next week, please tweet questions you have about Kentucky politics to @samyoungman. We'll pick some of our favorites and do our best to answer them in this space.

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog:

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