, Corbin, KY


March 3, 2014

U.S. Senate race well worth following

CORBIN — Anyone who says he knows who will win Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. Senate race is likely telling you what he wants rather than what he knows.

Polls provide only hints: incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell has a significant double-digit lead over primary challenger Matt Bevin; but McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes are essentially tied in general election polls.

Bevin supporters keep faith, recalling polling in the 2010 Republican primary between Rand Paul and Trey Grayson didn’t accurately predict Paul’s 23-point win. Primary favorites McConnell and Grimes know a lot will change before November and spring polls may not reflect how voters will see things in the fall. But there are other things to watch besides polls.

Bevin isn’t well known and apparently lacks the means or organization to mount a prolonged, major statewide advertising campaign to change that. But he does well when he gets in front of groups. At nearly every event, Bevin charms those he meets personally and usually impresses at least some of the skeptics with his speeches.

But there are a whole lot of those skeptics, and his credibility has suffered from the convoluted — and at times contradictory — explanations of why he signed a letter which appears to praise the financial bailouts of 2008, bailouts he now criticizes McConnell for supporting. His message is short on specifics, usually summed up by assertions that he’s a constitutional conservative (plus criticisms of Obamacare and federal debt, but those are also criticized by McConnell).

Grimes benefits from biography and identity: she’s young, fresh and attractive with little official record to criticize but with many helpful connections. She has improved as a candidate but still sometimes comes off as too scripted on the stump. Like Bevin, she’s good one-on-one. She’s criticized — not always unfairly — for avoiding questions or trying to have it both ways with some answers to those questions.

She benefits from the statewide network nurtured for years by her father, Jerry Lundergan, and she has “The Big Dog,” Bill Clinton, and 2016 presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in her corner. It’s a good time to be a female candidate. But what impresses most is how much more enthused Democrats are about this federal election than I’ve seen them in many years.

McConnell’s strengths and weaknesses are the opposites of Grimes.’ Always well-funded, McConnell knows precisely what he wants to do and can’t be goaded into getting off script. He knows the issues and he knows how to frame them (sometimes artfully) to his benefit and to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses. He’s running in a state which isn’t very fond of Democratic President Barack Obama.

McConnell doesn’t enjoy a reservoir of personal affection. Democrats revile him and while Republicans respect and sometimes fear him, but they don’t always love him. His favorable ratings in polls are awful. He polls poorly with women. In spite of a Republican-favorable climate, some rank and file Republicans seem to lack enthusiasm. McConnell must make the race about Grimes and even more about Obama and not about him. But he’s pretty good at that sort of thing.

What he needs to do as Republican Senate Leader in Washington works against him in the primary. What works for him in the primary hurts him in the general election. There’s evidence some Bevin supporters may stay home in the fall if McConnell wins the primary. His current campaign staff — assembled specifically for the primary — is missing familiar faces from his past operations. They’ve made mistakes uncharacteristic for a McConnell operation.

I don’t know who will win. But there’s plenty to watch between now and then.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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