Political Paddock: It's March Madness for Bluegrass politics, too

syoungman@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2014 

March Madness isn't just for college basketball. This week's Political Paddock column gets in on the action with a would-be Cinderella story, some trash talk and a few Nate Silver predictions.

First, the Cinderella story.

Republican Matt Bevin desperately wants to upset Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in May's Republican primary for U.S. Senate, but it's hard to be a Cinderella if the top seed won't show up to play the underdog.

Bevin has accepted invitations to four debates or candidate forums, and last week started doing a "Clubber Lang" (Mr. T) impression from Rocky III, stepping up his criticism of McConnell for avoiding debates.

"McConnell's unable to defend his record, and he knows it," Bevin said. "I think he's afraid to be seen on stage with me for a variety of reasons. There's a stark difference from a number of perspectives when people both see and hear the two of us articulate why we're in this race and why it matters."

If we learned anything from the 2012 Republican presidential nomination battle, it's that 20 debates is too many. But in a democracy, zero is too few.

Of course, McConnell has nothing to gain and everything to lose from a debate against Bevin, just as likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes would against the small list of lesser-known candidates also vying for the Democratic nomination.

The McConnell campaign on Monday pointed to one quasi-debate between McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton and Bevin at a forum during Constitution Day ceremonies last September at the University of Kentucky.

"After losing one debate to our campaign manager, Bailout Bevin has spent the last eight months changing his story to whatever he thinks people want to hear on everything from where he went to school to what he stands for," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said Monday. "In the interest of consistency, he should probably debate himself and come back after he has declared a winner."

Trash talk

While many Kentuckians will spend the week preparing for Friday's match-up between the Wildcats and the Cardinals, Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates will be racing to the end of the year's first fundraising quarter.

The eyes of the political nation will watch closely what the campaigns report, so the hyperbolic fundraising literature was flying with a week to go until March 31.

For McConnell, a big part of the effort centered around casting himself as Public Enemy No. 1 for President Barack Obama and other Democrats, and warning Republican donors that Grimes and her liberal allies would spend $50 million to beat him.

In a mailing to donors, the senator continued define the Senate race as a battle between him and national Democrats, writing that "the Obama-Clinton Democrats are obsessed with defeating me."

The mailing began with the news that Clinton had come out of retirement "for one reason, and one reason alone."

"Bill Clinton wants to kick me out of the Senate," McConnell wrote. "That guy sure can hold a grudge."

The bogeymen for Grimes are McConnell and super political action committees, which can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to support or defeat a candidate.

On Sunday, the Grimes campaign fired off a fundraising email asking donors to help the campaign raise $100,000 to add to its tally by the end of the month, warning that a McConnell super PAC just announced it would spend $1.8 million in the race.

The $1.8 million advertising buy was made by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition (KOC), which is a 501(c)4 non-profit and not technically a super PAC.

The group's first ad caught the attention of the Grimes campaign because it featured b-roll from the YouTube video that was made famous by the #McConnelling Internet sensation.

A week after the video had gone viral, the Grimes campaign sent out a fundraising email about the "bizarre, wordless" footage that exploded online when "The Daily Show" encouraged viewers to mash up the footage with music.

"'McConnelling' is funny — okay, amazing — but here's the not-so-funny part: No matter how much the McConnell campaign tries to pretend otherwise, that awkward wordless campaign ad that started it all enables Super PACs to make attack ads that do nothing to move our country forward," the email, signed by Team Switch, said.

Meanwhile, Bevin launched www.crushmitch.com in response to McConnell telling The New York Times that establishment Republicans are going to "crush" Tea Party groups in races across the country. Bevin's campaign said the website had drawn thousands of new donors.

After finishing the year with almost $11 million in cash, McConnell started 2014 with a significant fundraising advantage over Grimes, who finished 2013 with about $3.5 million in cash. Bevin had just more than $500,000 at the start of the year.

Nate Silver

If you're a Kentucky fan, hide your eyes. If you're a Democrat, cover your face with a pillow. If you're both, whatever you do, don't go to Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com website.

Silver, who predicted the 2012 presidential race with remarkable accuracy, gave national Democrats fits on Sunday when he gave Republicans a 60 percent chance of winning six seats and retaking the Senate.

Silver put Kentucky and Georgia in the category of seats that lean Republican but could be possible Democratic pick-ups, giving McConnell a 75 percent chance of holding his seat.

The statistics whiz noted McConnell's "poor approval ratings," but he said the senator's fundraising advantage and voters' dislike for Obama in Kentucky could prove to be too much for the "charismatic" Grimes.

"I'll concede that I'm curious to see what our algorithmic forecasts do with this race once they're up and running," Silver wrote.

It gets worse for fans of Kentucky basketball: Silver gives the Wildcats a 3.68 percent chance of cutting down the nets in Texas. That's up from the 1.91 percent chance he gave the Cats at the start of the tournament, but below his top picks — Florida at 18.38 percent and Louisville at 16.76 percent.

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

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