Political Paddock: The good, the bad and the ugly from primary election night

Herald-Leader Political Writer,Sam YoungmanMay 21, 2014 

Warning: These numbers mean nothing, everything or something in the middle. But it's the day after the primary election, and this is what we do for fun.

We know that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes both survived their primaries, and they wasted no time kicking off the general election.

But while McConnell was moving on by raising money and challenging Grimes to a series of debates and Grimes was in Beattyville hoping to capitalize off of McConnell's "not my job" gaffe, it's worth taking a look at what the numbers from Tuesday could tell us about November.


The good: McConnell's team was pleasantly surprised to see their turnout operation surpass what U.S. Sen. Rand Paul hustled to the polls in 2010, tallying 213,881 votes to Paul's 206,812 and the 168,127 McConnell won in a lower profile 2008 Republican primary.

McConnell held the ultra-conservative counties of Northern Kentucky, a region Bevin made a priority after receiving a lot of support from Tea Party Republicans in Boone County and other places where the county GOP chairman endorsed Bevin.

McConnell also has to be happy that he finished with about 60 percent of the vote. The Bluegrass Poll last week showed McConnell beating Bevin 55 percent to 35 percent (Bevin did win 35 percent), meaning there is evidence that the poll's 5 percent of undecided voters broke for McConnell.

The bad: Two counties and a total of 133,112 Republicans voted for somebody other than McConnell. He lost two counties, Scott and Pendleton, both counties McConnell carried in his last go-around.

It's not as bad as it could have been, or as bad as some thought it would be when Bevin got in the race, but it's still not great by any stretch of the imagination. There is pretty overwhelming evidence that at the start of the general election, McConnell has serious party unity and enthusiasm problems.

As the Grimes campaign reminded reporters on Wednesday, the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics found that McConnell's 60-percent showing was "the lowest support registered by a sitting Kentucky U.S. Senator from either party since 1938." Of course, no primary challenger in that timeframe has spent more than $3 million trying to unseat an incumbent.

The ugly: Continuing on that theme, Bevin's, uh, concession speech didn't do McConnell a whole lot of favors. While his tone was pleasant, his words — "...We're not going to soon forget that we have been lied about."— were embittered.

In Bevin, McConnell offered a master's class in how to define an unknown opponent, but McConnell's harsh treatment of Bevin may come at a price in the general election if disaffected Republicans stay home. The senator's campaign is betting heavy that it can sufficiently make the election a choice between McConnell and Obama, using a widespread anti-Obama sentiment to smooth over whatever hurt feelings linger.


The good: Grimes is in a remarkable position for a candidate competing in her first federal election against a five-term incumbent known for being a wily, if not vicious, campaigner. There were no obviously disqualifying mistakes as she kept a relatively low profile during the primary season and amassed an impressive campaign war chest.

The 76 percent of the vote she took home Tuesday night came at little cost, and Grimes doesn't have to do the dance where she travels around with a vanquished opponent pretending that there are no hard feelings. Grimes can now focus on campaigning hard while continuing to raise money, and there is evidence that Grimes voters are enthused voters.

The bad: If you get emails from any of McConnell's allies, then you've heard this one before — Grimes lost almost a quarter of Democrats to unknown candidates who didn't spend a dime. In some southeastern counties, Grimes' margin of victory was reminiscent of the 2012 Democratic primary when Obama lost 40 percent of Democrats to "uncommitted."

Grimes underperformed in places such as Bell County (64.2 percent), Letcher County (62.3 percent) and Floyd County (65.9 percent), potentially giving McConnell room to work with conservative Democrats whose party registration runs counter to how they vote in federal elections.

All told, 93,672 Democrats voted for somebody other than Grimes. Only 86,911 registered protest votes against Obama in the 2012 primary. There's a world of difference between a presidential and a Senate race, but it appears as though Team Grimes has work to do in coal country.

The ugly: The likely reason for the drop in support in some of those counties is that McConnell's allies have been saturating the airwaves with ads featuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama for months. Those same allies said Wednesday that the results were evidence that voters have begun associating Grimes with Reid and his oft-brandished comment that "coal makes us sick."

This lends some credence to the argument that Grimes, who was focused on the critical task of fundraising during the primary, could have done more to define herself while McConnell was distracted by Bevin.

Now we move on to the general election, staggering sums of money and nasty campaigning. More bad than good, and plenty of ugly await.

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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