Political Paddock: The price of Mitch McConnell's unpopularity

Herald-Leader Political WriterFebruary 10, 2014 

It's tough to be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell these days.

One day he's praised for helping "save" more than 2,000 jobs in the Lexington area. A week later, he's down by 4 points in a poll looking at his re-election prospects.

The Bluegrass Poll, which came out last week and shows McConnell trailing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes 46 percent to 42 percent, revealed a number of trends that will shape the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

But McConnell's negative job approval and favorability ratings tell the story of the race so far.

The numbers show that McConnell is well known but not particularly well liked. (Sixty percent of registered voters disapprove of his job performance, and 50 percent have an unfavorable view of him.)

He now has the hard, if not impossible, task of reintroducing himself to voters who have known him for 30 years. It hurts the senator exponentially if the negative feelings that voters have about him override any good news that McConnell can generate.

The Jan. 31 event at Bluegrass Station, a military industrial park, is the perfect example.

Between two events that Grimes held to tout a jobs plan that is short on specifics and in some areas repeats ideas already in place, McConnell joined Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and a handful of local officials at a nondescript military building about 10 miles from downtown Lexington.

The secret to McConnell's success, what has helped to propel him to five terms in the Senate, was on full display.

Bluegrass Station sits on federal land that was designated for recreational use. When the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs decided to expand the installation onto those lands, they ran into roadblocks from several federal agencies.

In 2011, state officials asked for help from McConnell, who brought the agencies together, cut through the red tape and three years later showed up to cut the ribbon on the new building.

At the ceremony, Adjutant General Edward Tonini heaped blush-worthy praise on McConnell while longtime aide Terry Carmack craned to take pictures. Officials said the expansion helped ensure that 2,800 private sector jobs remained at Bluegrass Station and increased the likelihood of more jobs in the future. The economic impact of Bluegrass Station on Central Kentucky was estimated to be $230 million annually.

In short, it was the kind of day a politician running for re-election dreams about.

It also was the day the U.S. Senate candidates' fundraising numbers came out. Guess which story got more attention.

Perhaps wary of the senator's reputation as a slash-and-burn campaigner, Team McConnell has worked hard to present a positive narrative to go with blistering attacks on primary challenger Matt Bevin and whatever can of snakes they have on the shelf for Grimes.

Note that the senator's first major television advertisement of 2014 wasn't an attack ad, but rather a positive ad designed to portray McConnell just as the officials at Bluegrass Station did: as a guy in a leadership position who can get things done.

They're good stories for an incumbent to be able to tell, but only if voters are willing to listen.

With the exception of Gov. Steve Beshear, there wasn't a politician asked about in last week's Bluegrass Poll who shouldn't see danger in their numbers.

For Grimes, who starts in a strong position, the danger is that she is largely unknown, and McConnell excels at defining his opponents negatively. Nearly half of registered voters surveyed either had no opinion or a neutral opinion of Grimes.

For U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the danger is that his approval rating was below 50 percent. If it looks as if defending his Senate seat in 2016 will be a bruising affair, Paul might not take on the added heavy burden of running for president.

For McConnell, the danger is almost everywhere.

If voters have soured on McConnell to the point that they're not moved or interested in stories such as the one out of Bluegrass Station, McConnell will be left with only one avenue to victory: going predictably negative against Grimes in a footrace between the two candidates to see who can get to undecided voters first.

Therein lies the one sliver of good news McConnell can take from last week's poll, which was conducted by SurveyUSA for the Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV, The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville.

When candidates go negative, it usually drives their numbers down with voters who don't approve of mudslinging.

For McConnell, those numbers can't get much lower. So if the contours of the race are more Bluegrass Poll than Bluegrass Station, McConnell will be freed to go on the attack and stay there.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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