Could Kentucky And Georgia Spoil GOP Hopes Of Taking Control Of The Senate?

Mitch McConnell's hopes to become Senate Majority Leader could hinge on what happens in his own state and in Georgia.

Mitch McConnell

At first glance, 2014 should be a good year for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even with the partial elimination of the filibuster for nominations, he is presently the head of a largely united minority caucus in the Senate that gives him a great degree of power over shaping legislation. He doesn’t really have any serious challengers for the leader’s position among Senate Republicans. And, most importantly, the current Senate math argues strongly that the GOP has a very good chance of taking control of the Senate in November. Look at things more closely, though, and you’ll see that he’s in a somewhat precarious position. In the immediate future, he’s facing a primary challenge from Tea Party champion Matt Bevin, who is receiving support from organizations like FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund. Further down the line, even if he beats Bevin as most observers believe he will, he’s facing a General Election challenge from Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes who, according to the latest poll, is leading McConnell by a very slim margin:

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes holds a slim 4-point advantage over U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a new Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll, with many voters saying they disapprove of McConnell but don’t yet know Grimes nine months from Election Day.

While Grimes leads the poll 46 percent to 42 percent, which is within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, data reveals that her relatively strong starting position is more about voters’ disapproval of McConnell than solid support for Grimes.

“This new poll confirms that Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs, and that the contest here will be one of the most exciting in the country,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “The voters are evenly divided right now, and so many of them are still making up their minds that the contest could swing in any direction.”

The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA and in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, interviewed 1,082 registered Kentucky voters using automated phone calls and cellphone surveys, including 404 registered Republicans for a closer look at the GOP primary.

In the primary, McConnell leads Louisville businessman Matt Bevin 55 percent to 29 percent. That portion of the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

While McConnell appears positioned to easily win the Republican primary, he’ll be in the fight of his political life to win a sixth term as Kentucky’s senior senator.

In an especially troubling sign for McConnell, his job-approval rating was two points below the approval rating poll respondents gave President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in the state.

Only 32 percent approved of McConnell, compared with 34 percent for Obama. Both men received a disapproval rating from 60 percent of voters.

With women and young voters, McConnell trails Grimes badly, losing women 49 percent to 37 percent and the 18-to-34 demographic 43 percent to 34 percent.

Among voters who identified themselves as politically “moderate,” another key demographic, 55 percent said they had an unfavorable view of McConnell, compared with 15 percent for Grimes..

Obviously, it’s still very early in the race and there’s a lot that could happen over the next nine months. For one thing, while voters in Kentucky are obviously familiar with Grimes given that she’s run statewide before, she apparently hasn’t faced a truly tough statewide race before and that’s exactly what McConnell and the outside groups that are likely to support him in the General Election are likely to give her. Moreover, McConnell enters the race with one of the largest campaign war chests of any Senate incumbent out there and while he’ll have to spend some of it dealing with Bevin it’s pretty clear that he’s going to have a lot of money to spend in a state where the media markets, though numerous, aren’t nearly as expensive as they might be in a state like Texas or Florida. A lot of that money is likely to be spent on advertising that will try to define Grimes as out of step with Kentucky’s voters and, if it succeeds, then McConnell’s negative numbers might not be as big a deal as they seem to be right now.

The bigger question, though, is what impact a tough race for McConnell might mean for the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate. As a preliminary matter, while the numbers are in favor of Republicans this year in that there are a lot of Democratic incumbents or seats that will be open this year that are currently held by Democrats in states that tend to lean Republican (i.e., Montana, South Dakota, Alaska, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina), the numbers are such that there’s very little margin for error for the GOP if they want to be in the majority come January 2015. Right now, the GOP would have to win six of those seven “red” states in order to end the night with an ultra-slim 51-49 majority. Sweeping all seven or picking up a seat in one of the blue/purple states where recent polling suggests the possibility of a GOP victory, such as Colorado or Michigan, would give the party a slightly more comfortable 52-48 majority. If McConnell loses, though, then winning six out of seven of those “red” state races means a 50-50 tie in a leadership vote that would be broken by Vice-President Biden (and, yes, the Vice-President is permitted to break ties in leadership votes) and the Democrats would retain control unless Republicans were able to somehow persuade Independent Angus King or Democrat Joe Manchin to switch to the GOP side of the aisle. The second manner in which a tight race for McConnell could have an impact beyond Kentucky is the extent to which it causes outside dollars, particularly from the GOP’s Senate Campaign Committee, to be spent in Kentucky to protect McConnell. The more money that gets spent there, the less will be available to be spent in states where the party might have a chance to pick up seats.

By the way, Kentucky isn’t the only state where the GOP might have to worry about defending a seat. Down in Georgia, there’s an open seat thanks to the impending retirement of Senator Saxby Chambliss. Five Republicans, including three sitting Congressmen and the former Georgia Secretary of State, are currently fighting it out in that race and headed toward a primary on May 20th and, if necessary, a runoff in July if nobody gets above 50% of the vote. On the Democratic side, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn seems to be headed toward an easy victory in the primary and, according to some recent polling, she is highly competitive with each of the GOP candidates likely to win the nomination in the end. As with the Kentucky race, a loss in Georgia would have a serious impact on the odds of a GOP Senate takeover and a competitive race would likely divert resources from races against potentially vulnerable Democrats.

Once again, all the usual caveats about early polling apply here, but as much as it’s worth keeping an eye on the seven red states where the GOP’s Senate hopes reside, it’s going to be necessary to keep an eye on Kentucky and Georgia as potential spoilers.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JohnMcC says:

    Senator Manchin is retiring in ’14 so it’s questionable how much good his joining the Republican party would do the Senate Repub Caucus.

  2. stonetools says:

    This is something that you and all the Obamcare haters are blind to, but there are an awful lot of people in Appalachia signing up for Obamacare, and guess what-they really like having access to health care for themselves and their kids. And they talk too-to their relatives in neighboring states like Georgia and Indiana whose governors turned down Obamacare.
    I think that will play a bigger part in the 2014 races than you might think-and definitely in Kentucky, where Obamacare is a roaring success.

  3. @JohnMcC:

    Where do you get the idea that Joe Manchin is retiring?

  4. Moosebreath says:


    The other WV Senator (Rockefeller) is the one retiring, not Manchin.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: It really does feel like Obama is asking Brer GOP not to throw him in that Obamacare briar patch, doesn’t it.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I just sent Ms. Grimes $250. Go get ’em.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    BTW, Obamacare is also a raging success in Northern California.

    More people than expected in the Bay Area signed up for health care under the Affordable Care Act through the end of the year, state health officials said.

    In the nine county Bay Area, which includes Marin, 116,635 people enrolled in subsidized and non-subsidized Covered California health insurance plans from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, according to Covered California, the state’s health care insurance exchange, and the California Department of Health Care Services.

    Those three months represent 130 percent of the base projection of 89,599 that Covered California anticipated for the region during the six-month enrollment period, which ends March 31.

    Funny how many folks are signing up in places where the GOP isn’t actively obstructing the law. It’s almost as if there was a need for this law, and people outside of the Fox/GOP fever dome are figuring it out.

  8. rudderpedals says:

    Doug does Kentucky have a sore loser law?

  9. Based on a quick Google search, it appears that it does

  10. rudderpedals says:

    Thanks for checking. I guess that means no chance of a 3-way.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: oops, my bad. Apology offered.

  12. Pinky says:

    It’s really hard to believe that Georgia would go for Michelle Nunn. Southern voters can be loyal to a family, but it has been 15 years since her father left the Senate, and I’m just not sure that enough Georgians would pull that D lever. The article is right, however, that McConnell could siphon off a lot of the national money toward ensuring his reelection. He would even hold onto his leadership position, even if it became clear that he’d prevented the Republicans from gaining the Senate.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    Ask yourselves this: if the GOP holds the Senate but McConnell loses, who’s their leader?

  14. David M says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The horror

  15. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Who is their leader now? Ted Cruz.