U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has edged ahead of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes for the first time in a Bluegrass Poll, though the race for one of Kentucky's Senate seats remains a tossup.
With less than 100 days until Election Day, McConnell has taken a two-point lead over Grimes — 47 percent to 45 percent — as Republicans and coal-producing regions of Kentucky coalesce around McConnell, President Barack Obama's favorable rating remains low and McConnell appears to have neutralized the gender gap.
The poll of 714 registered voters was sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It was conducted by SurveyUSA from July 18 through July 23 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. For questions about the Senate match-up, the sample was reduced to 604 likely voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. This is the third Bluegrass Poll conducted this year.
In a Bluegrass Poll released in February, Grimes was ahead of McConnell 46 percent to 42 percent. In May, pollsters added potential third-party candidates Ed Marksberry and David Patterson, but Grimes maintained a razor-thin lead of 43 percent to 42 percent.
Marksberry recently announced he would not attempt to get on the ballot as an independent, though Patterson continues to try to get on the ballot as a libertarian.
When Patterson was added to the mix in the most recent poll, McConnell maintained a two-point lead over Grimes. In that question, McConnell garnered support from 41 percent of respondents, 39 percent picked Grimes and 7 percent chose Patterson.
Among likely voters, 25 percent said they still might change their minds.
After McConnell jockeyed with Obama for the title of most unpopular politician in the previous two polls, the percentage of registered voters with a favorable view of McConnell has jumped to 36 percent, up from 29 percent in May and 27 percent in February.
Among those with a positive view of McConnell was Brenda Hunley of Edmonton, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader.
"He's been in (the) Senate for a long time, and I think he would be the majority leader," Hunley said "He would do a lot for Kentucky and has a lot of experience there."
Grimes, who is Kentucky's secretary of state, also is viewed favorably by 36 percent of voters, but the percentage of voters who view McConnell unfavorably — 43 percent — is 10 points higher than Grimes. Nearly a third of registered voters — 31 percent — still have a neutral opinion of Grimes or don't know enough about her to form an opinion, but that's down from 38 percent in May and 47 percent in February.
"I think she's smart, motivated; we just desperately need a change," said poll respondent Kathryn Breeden of Manchester. "He's has been there too long, he's forgotten how to take care of the people who put him there. She's a change Kentucky does really need."
Many Republicans, however, appear to be returning to McConnell's fold after a contentious GOP primary in which he defeated challenger Matt Bevin.
In the February Bluegrass Poll, 73 percent of Republicans said they would vote for McConnell. In May, with Marksberry and Patterson included, that number dropped to 69 percent.
But with the primary behind them, 82 percent of Republicans now support McConnell. For comparison, exit polls in 2010 found that 91 percent of Republicans voted for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
McConnell also continues to win a significant chunk of Democrats, pulling 20 percent of them in the most recent poll. Only 13 percent of Republicans said they would back Grimes.
"I'm fed up with the Democratic Party," said poll respondent Carla Rains of Louisville. "I'm a registered Democrat, and I don't like Mitch and I definitely don't like Alison Grimes. She only votes the way Obama votes. The Democratic Party has only done destruction for America. I wouldn't vote for a Democrat for nothing."
Women, whom Grimes has courted intensely because they make up 53 percent of the electorate in Kentucky, appear to be a wash in the latest poll, which is a change from previous surveys.
Grimes leads McConnell among women by one percentage point, a demographic that favored her by 12 points in February.
Jeanne Houchins of Brownsville is among the 46 percent of likely female voters supporting McConnell.
"He's been there long enough to know how to maneuver things," Houchins said. "That's the job. I don't think her lack of experience would be in Kentucky's benefit. It's not just her, but anyone with a lack of experience."
On key campaign issues, voters appear split between McConnell and Grimes. Voters said they trusted McConnell more on coal, but favored Grimes on jobs. They're divided evenly on Medicaid.
McConnell holds a 43 percent to 39 percent lead over Grimes on the question of who "do you trust more to strike the right balance between protecting jobs in the coal industry and protecting the environment from pollution caused by coal-fired power plants?"
McConnell holds an even larger lead in coal-producing regions, which his campaign has targeted heavily. In Eastern Kentucky, which has lost more than half its coal jobs in recent years, 52 percent said they trusted McConnell more on coal while 34 percent chose Grimes. In Western Kentucky, McConnell was trusted by 45 percent and Grimes by 36 percent. The only region where Grimes holds an advantage on coal issues is Louisville and surrounding areas, where Grimes leads McConnell 44 percent to 37 percent.
On the issue of job creation, which Grimes has made central to her campaign, she holds a four-point lead over McConnell. Forty-one percent of voters say they trust Grimes more to create jobs, compared to 37 percent who trust McConnell. In Eastern Kentucky, however, that number flips to 40 percent for McConnell and 34 percent for Grimes.
"Something has to be better than what we have now," said poll respondent Margaret Long of Lexington. "McConnell's been there for 30 years. Kentucky ranks low on everything — education, poverty, God knows we need some improvements, so obviously anyone would be better than him."
When it comes to the future of Medicare, Grimes' first attack ad on McConnell seems to have fallen flat. The candidates are tied at 42 percent on the question of "who do you trust more to keep the Medicare system financially stable and affordable for seniors?"
When asked about the issues of abortion and employer-funded health insurance for birth control, poll respondents offered mixed messages.
Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision, which said companies that object for religious reasons don't have to provide contraception as a health care benefit, Kentuckians agreed with the court 46 percent to 40 percent. Among women, though, only 38 percent agreed with the court and 45 percent disagreed. The issue is seen by national Democrats as an opening to win female voters in the midterms.
On abortion, 43 percent of respondents said they would favor a candidate who backed the existing law, while 39 percent said they preferred a candidate who wanted to make it more difficult for women to get an abortion.
Only 28 percent of respondents hold a favorable view of Obama, who continues to play a major role in the Senate race as McConnell attempts to portray Grimes as a rubber stamp for the president. And with McConnell gunning to lead a new Republican Senate majority for the president's last two years in office, Kentuckians would prefer the GOP have control of the upper chamber by a margin of 48 percent to 40 percent.
Clyde Adkins of Monticello said he was undecided going into November, and while he was decidedly anti-Washington, he had not heard enough about Grimes to make a decision.
"I've got an unfavorable opinion of everyone in Washington really," he said. "I don't know much about her, but it's hard to come in when you aren't known like Mitch McConnell. I'm not overjoyed about him, but right now he's a proven commodity."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.