Commentary Magazine


Topic: Alison Lundergan Grimes

Even in KY, Focus Is Obama, Not McConnell

In a week in which Democrats have already received a harsh wake-up call about the nature of the 2014 midterms in the form of a stunning loss in the special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, today’s New York Times article about the Kentucky Senate race will likely give liberals another conniption fit. The piece, a preview of a new Times-run site called Upshot, debunks the popular Democratic belief that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is doomed to defeat this November. Upshot may turn out to be nothing more than an attempt at an edgier version of Times political coverage intended to compete with the popular political news websites that have been running rings around old media print-based papers for years. But in this case author Nate Cohn is right on the money. Despite the wild optimism about Alison Lundergan Grimes’s challenge to McConnell that has become conventional wisdom in the liberal mainstream media, the odds against the Democrats in Kentucky are far greater than most on the left will concede.

As Cohn points out, the problem for liberals in Kentucky is no different from the one they faced this week in Florida when a superior and well-funded Democratic candidate lost to an inferior Republican. In Florida-13, national issues helped keep a seat in Republican hands in a district that Barack Obama won twice. As much as Democrats are trying to make the election a referendum on McConnell, 2014 is all about President Obama and ObamaCare. And as long as that is the case, Democrats are in big trouble.

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In a week in which Democrats have already received a harsh wake-up call about the nature of the 2014 midterms in the form of a stunning loss in the special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, today’s New York Times article about the Kentucky Senate race will likely give liberals another conniption fit. The piece, a preview of a new Times-run site called Upshot, debunks the popular Democratic belief that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is doomed to defeat this November. Upshot may turn out to be nothing more than an attempt at an edgier version of Times political coverage intended to compete with the popular political news websites that have been running rings around old media print-based papers for years. But in this case author Nate Cohn is right on the money. Despite the wild optimism about Alison Lundergan Grimes’s challenge to McConnell that has become conventional wisdom in the liberal mainstream media, the odds against the Democrats in Kentucky are far greater than most on the left will concede.

As Cohn points out, the problem for liberals in Kentucky is no different from the one they faced this week in Florida when a superior and well-funded Democratic candidate lost to an inferior Republican. In Florida-13, national issues helped keep a seat in Republican hands in a district that Barack Obama won twice. As much as Democrats are trying to make the election a referendum on McConnell, 2014 is all about President Obama and ObamaCare. And as long as that is the case, Democrats are in big trouble.

The mainstream media narrative about the Kentucky race has been fairly consistent. McConnell is the Republican liberals seem to despise the most and 2014 seemed to create a perfect storm of circumstances that could guarantee his defeat. Many Tea Party activists regard McConnell as the quintessential establishment traitor to their cause leading Matt Bevin, a wealthy investment executive, to try to take out McConnell in a primary. But even if he survived a primary, Democrats are fielding a formidable candidate in Grimes, who has a strong record as Kentucky secretary of state and can mobilize heavy hitters like former President Bill Clinton to back her candidacy. The party establishment felt so strongly about Grimes that they went all out to discourage actress Ashley Judd from running and the result is that she has a clear path to November. All that adds up to a competitive race that probably gives the Democrats their best—and perhaps only—chance to unseat a Republican senator this year.

But, as Cohn points out, assuming that a red state like Kentucky will oust an incumbent Republican senator, not to mention one as powerful as the minority leader (who may well become majority leader next January) is a leap of faith that sensible political observers shouldn’t make. The number of incumbents in McConnell’s position that have been defeated for reelection in the last generation can be counted on one hand. Indeed, the only real precedent for such an event is what happened to Alaska’s Ted Stevens in 2008 when Mark Begich narrowly defeated him after the senator was convicted in a corruption case. But, as Cohn helpfully points out, as much as Democrats and some right-wing activists might hate him, McConnell isn’t a convicted felon (while failing to note that Stevens’s conviction was later overturned because of the outrageous and illegal conduct of his prosecutors, though that did the Alaskan, who died in a plane crash soon after the election, little good).

If, as Cohn points out, McConnell could be reelected in 2008 in the middle of the electoral wave for Barack Obama as well as in the wake of his role in the passage of the TARP bailout for the banks, it’s hard to imagine him losing in the midst of what almost everyone concedes will be a big Republican year with voter outrage focused on ObamaCare. Throw in the fact that anger about Obama’s anti-coal policies is running red hot in the state’s coal producing regions and it’s hard to see how Grimes gets to a majority this year.

Moreover, as Cohn also notes, Grimes’s good poll numbers that show her even with the senator have a fatal flaw. She’s currently polling in the low 40s, which sounds good but, given Kentucky’s past voting patterns, that may be her ceiling rather than a jumping off point.

More than anything else, like other Democrats, Grimes is going to have to deal with the massive fallout from ObamaCare. Like Alex Sink in Florida-13, Grimes is trying to finesse the issue by saying the law should be fixed rather than repealed. The Kentucky ObamaCare exchange is working better than in most states leading some to conclude health care won’t be the issue in that state that it is elsewhere. But that’s an assumption that fails to take into account the dynamic of how a national issue can overwhelm local concerns. And, as Sink discovered, the “fix it” mantra may not turn out to be so smart anyway since it forces Democrats to play on Republican turf.

It’s true that Mitch McConnell has a fight on his hands and Grimes may well have a future in national politics beyond this year. But those counting on the minority leader losing are probably backing the wrong horse in this year’s Senate derby.

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Democrats Want to Win. Does the GOP?

In the classic Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film State of the Union one of the characters, a veteran Republican politician played by Adolf Menjou, defined the difference between the country’s two major parties thusly, “They’re in and we’re out.” That cynical view summed up the way party hacks viewed the electoral process. The only goal was to win; ideology, principle and policies were secondary considerations at best. American politics has come a long way since the era of bosses and smoke-filled rooms that were essential to that story, loosely based on the rise of 1940 GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Pundits routinely tell us that we now live in an era when pure partisanship disconnected from ideology is on the wane. The civil war that threatens to tear apart contemporary Republicans, as Tea Party activists seek to slay the dragon of the GOP “establishment,” is an example of just how different things are today.

But not, apparently, in the Democratic Party. As today’s Politico story about Kentucky Democrats plotting to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrates, some of the most liberal groups and donors in the country are putting aside any scruples about their most closely held principles in pursuit of winning nothing more than an election. As they have in more instances than you can count in the last decade, liberals are playing by the old rules of politics while their opponents are doing something entirely different. While they are opening themselves up for criticism from their base, it appears that a party once known as the epitome of anarchy is focused on one thing and one thing only: holding onto Congress.

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In the classic Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film State of the Union one of the characters, a veteran Republican politician played by Adolf Menjou, defined the difference between the country’s two major parties thusly, “They’re in and we’re out.” That cynical view summed up the way party hacks viewed the electoral process. The only goal was to win; ideology, principle and policies were secondary considerations at best. American politics has come a long way since the era of bosses and smoke-filled rooms that were essential to that story, loosely based on the rise of 1940 GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Pundits routinely tell us that we now live in an era when pure partisanship disconnected from ideology is on the wane. The civil war that threatens to tear apart contemporary Republicans, as Tea Party activists seek to slay the dragon of the GOP “establishment,” is an example of just how different things are today.

But not, apparently, in the Democratic Party. As today’s Politico story about Kentucky Democrats plotting to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrates, some of the most liberal groups and donors in the country are putting aside any scruples about their most closely held principles in pursuit of winning nothing more than an election. As they have in more instances than you can count in the last decade, liberals are playing by the old rules of politics while their opponents are doing something entirely different. While they are opening themselves up for criticism from their base, it appears that a party once known as the epitome of anarchy is focused on one thing and one thing only: holding onto Congress.

As Politico notes, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is no favorite of environmentalists. The Democrat’s likely candidate against McConnell is a supporter of the coal industry and a critic of the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate the fossil fuel industry out of existence. But that isn’t stopping leading “climate change activists” and Democratic donors from lining up to help her with their wallets open.

“It is far better to win the Senate than have every senator on the same page,” [Susie Tompkins] Buell said in an email after an October fundraiser she and her husband, Mark, held for Grimes at their California home. “We can’t always be idealistic. Practicality is the political reality.”

Adolf Menjou couldn’t have put it any better.

For decades, the Democratic Party was wracked by dissension as liberal ideologues sought to purge conservatives from their ranks. Their efforts were largely successful, as the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats have now left the Senate and the ranks of the Blue Dogs in the House have been thinned to a precious few. While Republicans were eliminating their liberal wing too, the left’s ascendency on one side of the aisle helped pave the way for the GOP revival that ended a half-century of unchallenged Democratic control of Congress. But when faced with a choice between winning an election and purifying their party of any remnants of centrism, liberals seemed to have learned their lesson. As they did in Pennsylvania when they backed a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat in Bob Casey in order to unseat Rick Santorum, liberal donors have their eye on the big prize and are resisting the impulse to nominate more ideologically compatible candidates in favor of someone who can help increase the size of the Democratic caucus in the Capitol.

This wouldn’t be important except for the fact that conservatives are heading in the opposite direction. Across the nation, Tea Partiers are more focused on ending the careers of Republicans that are insufficiently conservative than they are on defeating Democrats and say, making Harry Reid the minority leader rather than the man in charge of the majority. It’s hard not to sympathize with those who are tired of politics as usual and those who waffle rather than take strong stands on the issues. The choice between principle and winning is also not always so clear-cut, as some Tea Party challengers are good candidates and some establishment favorites are duds. But the main point here is that if one of the parties is only concerned with winning and much of their opposition is more interested in something else, you don’t need to be a master prognosticator to know which side is more likely to win.

In real life, politics is not a Frank Capra film where the honest good guys always triumph in the end. Assembling a congressional majority requires compromises and living with candidates that don’t always meet ideological litmus tests but give parties a better chance to win. It may be that in 2013, the answer to the question about the difference between the parties isn’t who’s out and who’s in but which one understands that basic fact of political life.

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