GEF @ 4:38 PM MST
While much of the media and political world has been focused on the race for the White House, another contest with leadership implications is quietly gaining steam on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was never expected to be challenged for his seat. A four-term incumbent from a deeply red state, his favorability ratings in Kentucky have stayed steadily over the 50 percent mark for much of the past year. But with the rapid disintegration of the Republican brand and with several self-made political missteps, McConnell now finds himself drawn into an electoral match-up once deemed an afterthought. A recent Survey USA poll had him beating his challenger Bruce Lunsford by a scant four percentage points: 50 percent to 46 percent.
“We have seen all along, even before there was a [Democratic[ candidate, that the voters of Kentucky want change, and at this point they are not getting it from their Senator,” said Chuck Schumer, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, when asked if picking off McConnell’s post was an honest possibility. “I think it’s the war — the voters of Kentucky want a change of course on the war, gas prices. People just don’t want the status quo.”
In some ways, McConnell’s political future is out of his hands. The congressional leader of the Republican Party, he’s been tasked with carrying the president’s water in defense of the Iraq war and as a legislative obstructionist. The part has not always suited him well. That his electoral prospects have grown dimmer in the process is one of the more poignant political developments of this election. Indeed, should McConnell ultimately lose his seat, it would mark a symbolic bookend to the president’s second term – a four year period that began with the defeat of the Democrats’ Senate leader (Tom Daschle) and a euphoric sense of conservative promise, only to fall apart with as much embarrassment as rapidity.
“I think the analogy is imperfect,” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, when asked about the Daschle-McConnell comparison. “On two fronts: the first is Daschle was from basically a strongly Republican state and had managed to win in the House and Senate because of his personality… But when you get a different level of national viability as a majority leader, you are in a more precarious position, because there is a wave that can overcome affections. Could Mitch McConnell be caught in a wave? Yes. But it will have to be against the state’s natural tides.”
But it’s not just Bush that has weighed McConnell down. The Senator has made his own bed. Revelations that McConnell had pushed for $25 million in earmarked funds for a British defense contractor under criminal investigation caused an uproar in the local press. The Senator played a role in spreading bogus questions about the financial circumstances of a 12-year-old boy that the Democrats had made the poster-child for the passage of children’s health care. McConnell’s support for the Iraq War has caused frictions as well, as Kentuckians have soured on the Middle East venture.
“The national issues haven’t helped. Being the party leader for a party whose brand has been pretty damaged in the last year has taken some toll,” said Scott Lasley, professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. “Twenty-four years in D.C. is a long time and you see this thing were your popularity tends to peak in your 14th or so year.”
In the process, his influence back home has waned. Though not the most ardent of supporters, McConnell headlined three fundraisers for Kentucky GOP gubernatorial candidate Ernie Fletcher in 2007, only to watch as the man he deemed “the best governor for Louisville” flopped on the ballot. And as coverage of McConnell grew more critical, the Senator began to publicly complain, penning letters to the editor “chuckling” about “none-too-subtle” biases.
And yet, despite these obvious problems, the consensus seems to be – at this point in time at least – that while McConnell surely could lose his reelection bid, the likelihood remains that he will serve another term. For starters, as the Senator’s office pointed out, a Voter-Consumer poll in late May 2008 had McConnell ahead of Lunsford 50 percent to 39.
“It appears that Bruce Lunsford has experienced the old ‘dead cat bounce’ since winning the May primary,” read the survey. “A majority of Kentuckians think Mitch McConnell is doing a good job, and they plan to support Sen. McConnell for reelection this November.”
Moreover, Kentucky Democrats will almost assuredly see a dip in turnout with Barack Obama on the ticket compared to Hillary Clinton (who won that state’s primary by 35 percentage points). And while Lunsford, a wealthy businessman from Louisville brings with him the benefits of self-finance, his political acumen leaves something to be desired: he lost the 2007 Democratic primary for governor with roughly 20 percent of the vote.
In the end, however, the race for Kentucky’s senate seat will likely be a referendum on Mitch McConnell and, by extension, George W. Bush. And it will be the political events that occur between now and the election that will determine whether the president’s second term will be marked by the loss of yet another Senate leadership post.
“I do think he can be beat,” said AEI’s Ornstein. “There have been experiences in the state suggesting that it is not reflexively Republican. Mitch has a base and is savvy, but he is not a warm and fuzzy guy and you can imagine a set of circumstances, including Bush’s low approval, the continued deterioration of the economy, a series of gaffes and fiascos that reverberate, and McCain’s candidacy kind of cradling, taking him under.”
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