Heading into the 2014 campaign, most analysts agreed that control of the U.S. Senate hinged on the survival of a few key red state Democrats and the one vulnerable Republican incumbent: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the latest poll out of Kentucky provides some very bad news for Democrats for which they can blame one person: Barack Obama.
The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling issued the first survey of the contest between McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes published in the last month. It shows the GOP leader with a 5-point lead. That still leaves Grimes within reach of the Republican. But it also represents a gain for McConnell over previous polls issued over the summer. That’s a disappointing result for Grimes after what supporters saw as a strong launch to her campaign as anti-McConnell broadsides began to fill the airwaves in the Bluegrass State. Just at the moment when she might have been expected to eliminate the razor-thin lead McConnell has been nursing throughout the year, it appears the Democrat is starting to lose ground.
That has to be particularly frustrating for Grimes and the Democrats because the secondary polling data still shows McConnell to be extremely vulnerable. The same poll shows McConnell to have a 54-37 negative favorability rating, the kind of figures that normally spell doom for any incumbent. But though Grimes is a relatively fresh face with a good political pedigree, she isn’t particularly well liked either. Her 45-41 negative favorability isn’t as bad as McConnell’s but it shows that despite the hype about her in the liberal mainstream media, she hasn’t favorably impressed Kentuckians. Though there is still plenty of time for her to recover and overtake McConnell, skepticism is growing even on the left that this is possible.
These numbers show that even liberal prognosticators are starting to write Grimes off. Statistical guru and 2012 presidential election pundit superstar Nate Silver had already rated McConnell’s chances of winning reelection at 80 percent last week. That’s bound to go up even higher now. The New York Times Upshot blog (which replaced Silver’s “Five Thirty-Eight” when he went independent updated their prediction today about Kentucky to an 85 percent chance of a McConnell victory.
That means the Democrats’ margin for error in holding onto their Senate majority may now be so small as to make it highly unlikely that they can prevail in November. Silver rates the GOP as having a 60 percent chance of running the Senate next year. Upshot rates it at 55 percent.
The explanation for this trend isn’t hard to discern. Everyone seems to agree that unlike 2010, this year’s midterms won’t be a “wave” election in which a tidal wave of support for one party will lift all boats and create a landslide. But with the one vulnerable GOP senator looking like a likely winner and a number of red state Democrats fighting for their lives the Republicans don’t need a wave. All they do need is to remind voters in GOP-leaning states which candidates are supportive of President Obama. After all, the only person more unpopular in Kentucky than McConnell is the president. Obama has a staggering 63-32 percent negative approval rating there.
Republicans may have counted on anger about ObamaCare or some of the administration’s other scandals to lift them to a nationwide victory. That hasn’t quite materialized but general dissatisfaction with the president looks to be sufficient to drag Democrats down in red states and keep even McConnell safe. With the world in chaos and the president showing no leadership abroad and only a desire to whip up partisan anger at home, there is little reason to believe that Democrats can reverse historic trends that show the incumbent party losing big in a second term midterm. While Grimes will be blamed if she fails to take down one of the least liked (though most effective) members of the Senate, rather than focusing on her shortcomings and lack of preparation for the big stage, Democrats would do better to realize that Obama has gone from being their greatest asset to their biggest problem.