Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kentucky DEMs catch a break with Ashley Judd out, but is McConnell as vulnerable as it seems?

Minority Leader McConnell (left) and a strong potential Senate opponent, Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (right). The Grimes photo is from a 2011 campaign ad & is  courtesy of the Grimes campaign. The McConnell photo is courtesy of Alex Wong/Getty Images.
Democrats made clear early on that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be on their very small list of top pick-up opportunities in the 2014 midterm elections.  Since then, much of the media focus in terms of McConnell's likely opponent centered on Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, a Democratic activist who grew up in the Bluegrass State with her famous country-duo Mom and Sister, Wynonna and Naomi Judd.

But Democrats caught a break two weeks ago when Judd announced, after a rough exploratory phase, she would not be challenging McConnell.

Though she started out somewhat competitive in polling (she trailed Junior Kentucky Senator Rand Paul 47-46% and McConnell 47-43% in a December PPP poll, and trailed 49-40% in a February Harper Polling survey), a brutal media barrage took its toll on Judd's image. First, there was the fact that though she would be seeking a Senate seat in Kentucky, she actually lives in Tennessee, and has for the last several years. Then came her bizarre affinity for comparing everything to rape - at first it was coal mining, then this bomb dropped: "I've been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.Just a day after the story surrounding the latest rape comment surfaced, Judd announced she wouldn't challenge McConnell.

And if the latest Public Policy Polling survey is to be believed, it was a wise decision on Judd's part. Her favorability rating with Kentucky voters dropped 13 points in just 4 months, from +6 in December, to -7 (34/41%) in April. When matched in a hypothetical 2016 Senate race with Rand Paul, she now trails 51-40%.

While it's questionable whether Judd would have been successful in a Democratic Primary, the McConnell campaign almost certainly would rather have faced her than their new potential opponent, KY Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Grimes is a youthful (just 35 years old!), attractive, and most importantly, Kentucky native up-and-comer who was catapulted into her current (and first) elected position in a 2011 special election...yet she trails the Senate Minority Leader just 45-41%.

So where does her impressive performance against McConnell stem from in the internals? In terms of partisan identification, not so much from Independents. They're backing the 5-term incumbent by a slight plurality, 41-39%. And while she attracts 61% from her own party, she's not terribly appealing to Republicans, getting just 16% of their support.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is actually quite strong among Kentucky Democrats, attracting 24% of their vote, the same amount he won in his last reelection bid (for comparison, Rand Paul won 16% of Democrats in his 2010 Senate race against Jack Conway). He's also considerably stronger among his base, picking up 74% of Republicans.

If McConnell is winning Republicans by more than his opponent is winning Democrats, and if he's attracting more crossover support from Democrats than Grimes from Republicans, and if he's leading slightly among Independents, how is this just a 4 point race? It most definitely has something to do with the fact that PPP finds 51% of respondents identifying as Democrats, but just 39% identifying as Republicans, a D+12 partisan advantage. Kentucky voters  may indeed be identifying as such today, but the chart below indicates it would be a Kentucky election first if D+12 holds until November 2014, especially for a non-presidential election year contest:

No Exit polling was conducted in Kentucky in 2012, 2011, and 2007.

As you can see, in every Kentucky election over the last 10 years in which exit polling was conducted, Democrats have outnumbered Republicans a maximum of 9% (and that was in the near-landslide Democratic presidential year of 2008). The Republican's strongest performance in partisan identification came just 2.5 years ago, during the Tea Party take-over of Congress.

Needless to say, if the Kentucky electorate looks like it did on election night 2008 (D+9), much less the D+12 PPP finds, the Democrats will have had a very good night, and McConnell is probably a goner.

Just for fun, the table below looks at what the PPP outcome would have been had they found partisan identification identical to what it looked like in 2010 (38% Democratic, 40% Republican, and 22% Independent), all other findings remaining the same:

Alison Lundergan Grimes negligible 4 point deficit against Mitch McConnell becomes a not-so-trivial 48-38% deficit (although it's worth noting even under such a favorable turnout scenario for Republicans, McConnell is still under the crucial 50% level of support).

While it's early, most forecasts of the 2014 midterms are not expecting a wave Republican year along the lines of 2010 (though to be fair, at this point in 2009, no one predicted 2010 would be as GOP-friendly as it was). Nor are they predicting a great year for Democrats; besides, the President's party rarely does very well in a second-term, midterm election. What does seem probable is that the 2014 midterm will fall somewhere between 2008 and 2010 in terms of partisan turnout. Below is a table of what PPP would have found if party I.D. was between their original D+12 finding and 2010's R+2 (in which case, party I.D. would be 45% Democratic, 40% Republican, and 15% Independent):

Grimes would trail 47-40% in the event PPP had found Kentucky voters' party ID between 2008-like levels, and 2010 levels.

Note: In their prior poll of the race in December, PPP actually found an even larger Democratic partisan ID advantage of D+15 (52% D/ 37% R/ 11% I), with Grimes trailing McConnell 47-40%. Had that poll been reweighted to the hypothetical D+5 party I.D. above, McConnell would have led 50-38%.
As interesting as an Ashley Judd vs. Mitch McConnell race would have been, it's good news for the DSCC that she decided to sit this one out. Now they get to run a more Kentucky-style Democrat with a fighting chance against a deeply entrenched incumbent. The good news for Republicans, however, is that if PPP is right, Grimes is going to need a very, very strong Democratic turnout if she hopes to topple the minority leader.

Of course, it's early to be handicapping an election 19 months out. But how else will I get my fix?

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