The re-election campaign of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has gained momentum in the last month, propelled by huge leads over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Western and Eastern Kentucky and among men, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
With less than 10 weeks until Election Day, the poll of 569 likely voters shows McConnell with a 4-point lead over Grimes, up from a 2 point margin a month ago. McConnell now leads Grimes 46 percent to 42 percent, with Libertarian candidate David Patterson at 5 percent.
McConnell's showing is his best to date in the Bluegrass Poll, but the race remains well within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. In addition, 8 percent of respondents remain undecided, and the number of people with a negative view of the senator remains high.
The poll, sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, was conducted by SurveyUSA on landline telephones and cell phones from Aug. 25-27.
The survey was conducted before McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, resigned abruptly Friday evening as a growing scandal related to Benton's time as political director for former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign threatened to envelop McConnell. Much of the poll also was conducted before a liberal-leaning publication published a secret recording Tuesday night of McConnell vowing to block votes on raising the minimum wage and other issues as he spoke privately with major Republican donors.
McConnell's popularity remains underwater statewide, with 36 percent of respondents holding a favorable view of him, compared to 46 percent unfavorable.
But his popularity spikes in the western and eastern parts of the state, where he has conducted bus tours in recent weeks to blame President Barack Obama for steep job losses in the coal industry.
In Western Kentucky, his favorable rating is 52 percent, compared to 33 percent unfavorable. In Eastern Kentucky, he is viewed favorably by 42 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 39 percent.
As such, McConnell's biggest leads over Grimes come from those regions. McConnell leads 55 percent to 32 percent in the west and 59 percent to 32 percent in the east.
Terrell Skinner of Russellville, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader, said he is backing McConnell because of the senator's opposition to President Barack Obama's administration.
"He's the number one thorn in the Democrats' side in Washington, and that's a good thing," Skinner said.
Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who have an opinion about Grimes continues to grow, but their views are split: 38 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable.
Grimes leads 45 percent to 38 percent in the Louisville area, and she holds a 49 percent to 40 percent lead in north-central Kentucky, which includes Lexington. In the west and east, however, more voters appear to be accepting McConnell's accusations that she will be a rubber stamp for Obama.
In Western Kentucky, her favorable rating dips to 32 percent, compared to 40 percent unfavorable. Voters are split evenly at 37 percent in Eastern Kentucky.
Poll respondent Jerri McClure of Jamestown is among those who see Grimes in a positive light, accepting her argument that McConnell, who is seeking his sixth term, has been in Washington too long.
"I'm tired of the old boys bureaucracy," McClure said. "Communities like Jamestown, it's just stagnated. It needs to have some fresh blood, and we need to get motivated for a new time. It's time for senators to stop lining their pockets."
Despite Grimes' efforts to target female voters, McConnell continues to poll equally well with them — 45 percent chose Grimes, and 44 percent chose McConnell.
Among men, Grimes faces a 10-point deficit: 48 percent to 38 percent.
Grimes also is losing a quarter of support from her own party, with 25 percent of Democrats saying they will vote for McConnell.
The senator, who squared off against Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in a contentious May primary, continues to see Republicans returning to the fold, locking up 79 percent of Republican respondents. That's up from 72 percent in last month's Bluegrass Poll.
By comparison, Grimes was the choice of only 67 percent of Democrats.
Taken on the whole, the poll suggests McConnell has successfully capitalized on Kentucky's disdain for Obama, who has a 29 percent favorable and 57 percent unfavorable rating. Talk of Obama and his administration's coal policies dominated the spring and summer phases of the race.
When asked which candidate would "most effectively fight for Kentucky's coal interests," respondents gave McConnell a 2-to-1 advantage over Grimes, 44 percent to 22 percent. In the coal-producing parts of the state, those margins are even wider, with 51 percent of respondents in the west and east giving the nod to McConnell.
About one in four registered voters said they believe "there is no war on coal." But in Eastern Kentucky, where more than 7,000 coal jobs have been lost in recent years, only 12 percent of respondents said there is no war on coal.
Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said the poll reflects voters returning to the way they have voted in the past, and that "the events of the last month have reminded them of why they're usually on one side or the other, and they're snapping back to their usual preferences."
"Conservative voters are returning to the fold, increasingly expressing an intention to support McConnell, and while Grimes pulls in comparable support among the small number of liberals, she has not convinced moderates to break her way in the lopsided fashion needed to counterbalance a large Republican base," Voss said.
As Grimes attempts to erase McConnell's edge, she has employed the right surrogate. Former President Bill Clinton, who joined Grimes for rallies in Lexington and Hazard this month, is viewed favorably by 53 percent and unfavorably by 23 percent.
But on a host of issues polled, McConnell has the upper hand over Grimes.
On the question of who voters trust more on issues of foreign policy, McConnell leads Grimes 43 percent to 28 percent. On immigration, McConnell leads 40 percent to 32 percent.
And on the economy, which voters in the last Bluegrass Poll said was their top issue by a landslide, McConnell leads Grimes 40 percent to 38 percent, again with massive margins in the eastern and western parts of the state.
Despite watching an 11-point lead among women evaporate since February, Grimes holds an enormous edge over McConnell on the question of who voters trust more to improve the lives of women. Only 31 percent of respondents answered McConnell, compared to 51 percent for Grimes.
Overall, Voss said, the unfolding campaign is largely having the effect of "reminding conservatives why they prefer a Republican and liberals why they prefer a Democrat." That has allowed McConnell to maintain or improve his position despite his popularity ratings getting no better.
"If anything, more people see him in an unfavorable light than they did a month ago," Voss said. "But with the contentious Republican primary fading in the rear-view mirror, the conservatives who used to help drive those bad numbers are now getting on board with McConnell, while liberal voters dislike him even more than before."
Poll respondent Marilyn Miller of Louisville said she is unhappy with Washington and long-serving public officials but still supports McConnell.
"He's the lesser of two evils," Miller said of McConnell.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com