The 2014 Kentucky Senate Race: Irony & Political Theater

Political candidates are often compared to actors trying to win over an audience while on stage, using scripts written by others . As in any drama, elections can have surprise endings. On June 10, House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election in one of the biggest political upsets ever. Was this a freak electoral storm, or should other Republican leaders worry, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?

The political stage loves irony, or at least finds it entertaining, and the Senate race in Kentucky could be truly ironic if:

  • Mitch McConnell is defeated, and his loss means that Republicans fail to take control of the Senate.
  • Republicans take control of the Senate, but McConnell is defeated in his reelection effort, and he never becomes Senate Majority Leader.
  • Former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.), who oversaw Republicans’ failure to take back the Senate in 2010 and 2012, becomes Senate Majority Leader in 2014 after McConnell’s election loss.
  • Republican Senate Minority leader McConnell loses his election on the 10th anniversary of Democratic Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle losing his seat in a historic political upset.
Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 1.57.20 PM
Political Theater: Comedy, Tragedy, and Irony in McConnell-Grimes Race

The stage is truly set for an ironic ending, but can McConnell really be defeated? University of Virginia’s political prognosticator, Larry Sabato, could answer such a question. According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball website on June 4, it appears that McConnell will easily win reelection and Republicans will take 4 to 8 seats in the November elections.

Could Sabato Be Wrong? A good geopolitical analyst looks at more than just one source, so I reviewed some current polls, headlines, and election trends.How is Mitch McConnell doing in the polls? Polls at Real Clear Politics look pretty bad for an incumbent. His campaign suffered negative publicity after a tape emerged in April 2013 of plans to attack Ashley Judd’s mental health. He averages only 45% of the vote in polls ending June 5, 2014. The Democratic candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is running very close to McConnell in most polls, and a Courier-Journal poll actually shows Grimes edging ahead.

Healthcare Debate. McConnell hates Obamacare (a Republican mantra), but Kentuckians seem to like their state healthcare exchange, Kynect. Confusingly, McConnell says that repealing Obamacare would have no impact on Kynect; this brought doublespeak charges from the Lexington Herald-Leader and criticism from Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. McConnell could become more unpopular as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) becomes more popular.

Kentucky Elections. Kentucky has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in 2011 Kentuckians elected six Democrats and one Republican to statewide offices, ranging from Governor to State Treasurer. Alison Lundergan Grimes garnered 60.6% of the vote to become Secretary of State in 2011 (see map below). Mitch McConnell won his Senate reelection in 2008 with 53% of the vote.


Geopolitically, Democrats tend to do best in the urban areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Owensboro and in eastern Kentucky. Republicans get most of their votes in central and southern Kentucky. Grimes won her 2011 election by holding Democratic counties and gaining votes in normally Republican regions.

McConnell’s 2008 election (map below) shows Kentucky as a purple state. Many counties show as varying shades of purple–neither firmly Republican nor Democrat. Individual campaigns and debates make a big difference in such areas.

McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.
McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.


2012 Senate Elections. Finally, let’s consider that Republicans forecast they would take the Senate in 2012. How did that work out? Well, Republicans won only 8 of 33 Senate races, with Republicans barely winning in Arizona and Nevada. Republicans ended up losing 3 seats in 2012—in Indiana, Maine, and Massachusetts. The Republican brand looks vulnerable in statewide races.

Toss-up Election? This looks more and more like a toss-up election. Now, I am the first to admit that I am no Larry Sabato (twitter: @larrysabato), nor even Ben Tribbett (twitter: @notlarrysabato). Both are Virginia political institutions. However, I question Sabato judging the Kentucky Senate race as “Likely R” (likely Republican). It seems like a “Toss-up,” or maybe a “Lean R” at this point.