Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes holds a slim 4-point advantage over U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a new Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll, with many voters saying they disapprove of McConnell but don't yet know Grimes nine months from Election Day.
While Grimes leads the poll 46 percent to 42 percent, which is within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, data reveals that her relatively strong starting position is more about voters' disapproval of McConnell than solid support for Grimes.
"This new poll confirms that Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs, and that the contest here will be one of the most exciting in the country," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "The voters are evenly divided right now, and so many of them are still making up their minds that the contest could swing in any direction."
The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA and in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, interviewed 1,082 registered Kentucky voters using automated phone calls and cellphone surveys, including 404 registered Republicans for a closer look at the GOP primary.
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In the primary, McConnell leads Louisville businessman Matt Bevin 55 percent to 29 percent. That portion of the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
While McConnell appears positioned to easily win the Republican primary, he'll be in the fight of his political life to win a sixth term as Kentucky's senior senator.
In an especially troubling sign for McConnell, his job-approval rating was two points below the approval rating poll respondents gave President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in the state.
Only 32 percent approved of McConnell, compared with 34 percent for Obama. Both men received a disapproval rating from 60 percent of voters.
With women and young voters, McConnell trails Grimes badly, losing women 49 percent to 37 percent and the 18-to-34 demographic 43 percent to 34 percent.
Among voters who identified themselves as politically "moderate," another key demographic, 55 percent said they had an unfavorable view of McConnell, compared with 15 percent for Grimes.
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In the general election matchup, Grimes holds a 20-point advantage over McConnell among moderates.
"McConnell has the support of conservatives and Grimes has the support of liberals, both of which are to be expected," according to SurveyUSA's analysis of the poll. "But Grimes outperforms McConnell five-to-three among moderates, and on this rock she builds her church."
However, many moderates haven't yet made up their mind about Grimes. More than half — 55 percent — said they had a neutral opinion or no opinion about her.
Overall, only 26 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Grimes, which was one point lower than McConnell.
Nelson Bishop, 83, of Bradfordsville said he is leaning toward voting for McConnell but doesn't yet know enough about Grimes.
"I haven't seen enough to even figure out what she's doing," said Bishop, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with a reporter.
In hopes of winning support from voters like Bishop, Grimes and McConnell are expected to race this spring to see who can define the Democrat in the minds of voters. With a campaign war chest of nearly $11 million, McConnell appears better situated to saturate the airwaves with negative ads about Grimes, whose campaign has about $3.5 million in cash on hand.
"Neither of Mitch McConnell's opponents is well defined in the minds of Kentucky voters," Voss said. "Too many Kentuckians have no opinion toward them or express neutral feelings. We're entering the stage of the election in which the campaign organizations struggle to define their candidate and to define their opponents."
Bevin, who has the backing of a number of conservative Tea Party fundraising groups, continues to be a virtual unknown in the state.
Only 10 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Republican challenger, while 17 percent have an unfavorable view. Almost three-fourths of voters are neutral or have no opinion of Bevin.
McConnell leads his challenger among self-identified conservatives 57 percent to 28 percent, and moderate Republicans favor the senator over Bevin 54 percent to 29 percent.
"Bevin has not been able to capitalize on dissatisfaction with Mitch McConnell, nor has he tapped into the broad base of support enjoyed by Tea Party poster boy Rand Paul," Voss said. "Republican voters do not have a clear impression of what sort of senator he would be, or how his representation would differ from McConnell's."
If Bevin were to defeat McConnell, the poll found that Grimes holds a five-point advantage — 43 percent to 38 percent, with 19 percent undecided — over Bevin in the general election.
If McConnell survives his primary challenge, he faces a tough sell in convincing the 12 percent of undecided voters in the general election to give him another six years.
Not surprisingly, the senator is strongest in the eastern and western parts of the state, where he has aggressively tried to lump Grimes with Obama and other national Democrats who have alienated the coal industry.
Even among Kentucky Democrats, only 52 percent approve of Obama's job performance.
"The challenge for Grimes is to distance herself from her party's unpopular president, as well as his party's liberalism on matters such as gay marriage or the growth of government," Voss said. "Instead, she benefits from focusing voters on a message of economic populism. Democrats can perform well here when they focus on lunch-pail issues such as aid to schools or the minimum wage."
Dolly Bragg, 68, of Columbia said she doesn't know much about Grimes, but will "probably" vote for the Democrat over McConnell.
"He seems like he's against poor people," said Bragg, who took the poll and agreed to a follow-up interview with a reporter. "I'm poor."
Another weapon McConnell hopes to wield against Grimes is the federal health care law; just under half of registered voters — 49 percent — said they agreed with McConnell's stance that the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, should be repealed. Forty-four percent said the law should be implemented and fixed as needed, which is the position taken by Grimes.
Among self-identified moderates, 55 percent said the law should be implemented and fixed as needed.
While McConnell's numbers paint a picture of a wounded and endangered incumbent, many of those who disapprove of his job performance appear to be Republicans who believe he compromises too much with Democrats but are unlikely to vote for Grimes.
When asked whether McConnell compromises too much, too little or the right amount, about one-third of Republicans said too much. Among conservative Republicans, the number climbed to 44 percent.
"People who think McConnell is doomed because of his high negativity ratings are probably reading too much into the numbers," Voss said. "Many of the Kentuckians criticizing McConnell are conservative Republicans unhappy with the sorts of compromises he's been making as a Senate leader, not the sort of voters who would be willing to send President Obama another vote in the Senate. The only way most of those voters are likely to help Grimes is if they stayed home on Election Day, denying McConnell sufficient support from his party base."
In a statement, McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said the campaign is "very comfortable" about its position in the race and "extremely confident" that McConnell will prevail this fall.
"The contrast between Mitch McConnell's conservative accomplishments for Kentucky and Alison Lundergan Grimes's alliance with President Obama's agenda of Obamacare and the war on coal will become very clear to everyone over the next nine months," Moore said.
Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said the poll results "mirror" what the campaign sees daily: "Kentuckians are ready for a U.S. senator who will finally put people above partisanship."