U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is poised for a landslide victory in Tuesday's Republican primary against Matt Bevin, setting up a dead-heat race against likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
The poll, jointly sponsored by the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal, WKYT-TV and WHAS-TV, found Bevin performing better than other recent polls, but still trailing McConnell 55 percent to 35 percent with just a few days left before voters cast their ballots.
If those numbers hold, McConnell will emerge victorious only to be locked in a toss-up battle against Grimes to retain his Senate seat and potentially serve as Senate majority leader.
The poll found the two likely nominees knotted in a statistical tie, with 43 percent for Grimes and 42 percent for McConnell. A February Bluegrass Poll found Grimes leading slightly, 46 percent to 42 percent.
"McConnell's clearly in the political fight of his life this year, in a toss-up election with an opponent who has remained even with him in the polls for a long time," said Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
The poll, conducted May 14 to May 16 by SurveyUSA, included interviews with 1,782 registered voters, including 1,475 who were determined to be likely voters. Of those, 747 were registered Republican voters, including 605 who were likely to vote.
The margin of error within the Republican sample of likely voters is plus-or-minus 4 percentage points. The general sample of likely voters has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.6 percentage points.
Among Republican voters, Bevin has seen some gains — the February Bluegrass poll showed him trailing McConnell 55 percent to 29 percent — but a majority of voters still say they don't know much about him.
The latest poll suggests Bevin has had only marginal success in raising awareness of his campaign. More than half of likely Republican voters (53 percent) had either a neutral opinion or no opinion of Bevin, compared to 74 percent in February.
Registered Republican voters sent mixed messages about their feelings for McConnell.
Reflecting the deeply conservative tendencies of Kentucky Republicans, 51 percent of GOP respondents said McConnell has done "too little" to stop spending in Washington, and 54 percent said he has done "too little" to "stop the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare."
Still, 55 percent agreed with the statement that McConnell's "expertise and seniority are important for Kentucky to have in Washington, D.C." That compares with 38 percent who agreed with the statement that McConnell "has been in office too long, and it's time for him to go."
If the Republican primary numbers hold and Kentucky's senior senator beats Bevin, McConnell and Grimes start the fall campaign in a statistical tie. Two other candidates — potential Independent candidate Ed Marksberry and Libertarian David Patterson — both polled at 4 percent among likely voters. Seven percent were undecided.
The small shift from February, when Grimes polled 4 points better than McConnell, appears to be attributable to women voters and with how the polls were conducted.
Grimes' lead in the year's first Bluegrass Poll was among registered voters instead of likely voters.
Moreover, while Grimes has made attracting women voters central to her campaign strategy, McConnell appears to have made significant inroads with Republican women, even as his overall approval numbers remain anemic.
In the February poll, Grimes led McConnell among women 49 percent to 37 percent. Since then, Grimes' lead among women has slipped to four points, 45-41. (The majority of polling in the race so far has shown Grimes consistently leading by a wider margin among women.)
In particular, Republican women have increased their support for McConnell by 8 points since February. Sixty-two percent of GOP women support McConnell now, up from 54 percent in February.
"I am surprised at how well the combination of positive campaigning and values-based rhetoric has allowed McConnell to maintain the support of so many Kentucky women, because that's not usually what we're seeing nationally with Republicans of his political profile," Voss said.
McConnell continues to face precariously high disapproval and unfavorable numbers. The Bluegrass Poll puts McConnell's job-approval rating at 34 percent, up two points from the February poll. The percentage of voters who held a favorable view of McConnell was 29 percent, also up two points from February. (Other recent polls have shown McConnell's approval and favorable numbers edging into the low 40s.)
Meanwhile, Grimes has succeeded in raising favorable awareness of her campaign, though the poll suggests she is still largely unknown to more than a third of voters and vulnerable to definition by McConnell.
The 27 percent of voters who have an unfavorable opinion of Grimes is unchanged from February, but her favorable number jumped from 26 percent to 35 percent. Meanwhile, the percent of respondents who were neutral or had no opinion of Grimes dropped from 47 percent to 38 percent.
Grimes has a 46 percent approval rating for her work as Kentucky's secretary of state, compared with 32 percent who disapprove and 22 percent who don't know.
"With perhaps a third of voters who still do not lean one way or the other in terms of how they feel about her, Grimes now will need to define herself with those voters at the same time that her opponent will be offering a competing image," Voss said.
As the candidates race to define Grimes, McConnell must also scramble to regain the trust of Bevin's supporters. If Bevin loses, 1 in 4 of his supporters indicated they would vote for Grimes, compared with 39 percent for McConnell.
Voss warned, though, that as the campaign goes on, conservatives who say they will vote for Grimes "likely will drift away as the election reminds them of how the Democratic Party leans left."
"Many of the voters still unsure about Grimes reside in the eastern and western portions of the state where McConnell is especially strong, so they are more likely to hear Republican messages from their friends and neighbors," Voss said. "She still has a lot of work to do if she wants to win this election, despite the polls showing it as a coin toss."
Betty Robinson, a poll respondent in Pike County, said she has supported McConnell in past years but plans to vote for Grimes this year.
"He's given a lot of lip service to the coal industry but has done very little to help it," she said. "I think he's as bad, maybe worse, than Obama. It's too late for the coal industry now."
Roy Conley, a disabled former coal miner in Knott County, said he favors McConnell in a race against Grimes.
"I'd love to be able to vote for her whoever she runs against. I'm a strict Democrat, but I don't like it that she is buddies with Paul Patton," Conley said.
Conley, who survived a 1981 mining blast in Topmost that killed eight, said he is not impressed with McConnell's role in helping the coal industry, "but at least he's never said anything bad about us."
President Barack Obama, who has been pilloried by McConnell and other Republicans for his efforts to more strictly regulate the coal industry, remains a deeply unpopular figure in Kentucky.
The percentage of voters with a favorable view of Obama matched McConnell's 29 percent, but Obama's 57 percent unfavorable rating surpassed McConnell's 49 percent.
While it is clear from the poll that Kentuckians are angry with Washington, it is unclear who that helps in the Senate race.
A majority of Kentucky voters — 62 percent — holds a dim view of incumbents in general, answering yes when asked if they would vote to throw out every member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and start over.
But when asked which political party they blame for what they see as a nation headed in the wrong direction, 40 percent blamed Democrats alone and 10 percent put the sole blame on Republicans. Forty-nine percent blamed both parties equally.
Obama's health care law, which Republicans have made the centerpiece of their offensive efforts thus far, also remains unpopular in the state, although not by an overwhelming margin.
Among registered voters, "the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare," went "too far," according to 56 percent of respondents. Twenty percent said it didn't go far enough, and 17 percent said it was "about right."