Six things to follow in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race on Election Night

11/04/2014 10:39 AM

After months of crisscrossing the state looking for votes and flooding the airwaves with ads trying to sway opinions, the wait is almost over.

Whether Tuesday brings an anticlimactic end to Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell widening his lead in recent public polling or an upset victory for Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes will be determined by voters in the only survey that matters.

Tuesday night’s results in Kentucky and elsewhere will determine much about the political futures of both candidates as McConnell eyes an ascent to Senate majority leader and Grimes tries to deny him a sixth term. Here are a some narratives to track, for political junkies and casual observers alike, as ballots are tallied across the state.

Results in coal counties

The two candidates have, for lack of a better phrase, tried to out-coal their opponent throughout the campaign. McConnell and Grimes have toured the eastern and western Kentucky coalfields extensively, thumping their chests and proclaiming themselves the only pro-coal candidate in this U.S. Senate race.

Both have hammered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations on carbon dioxide emissions and lamented the loss of coal jobs in the regions, though their narratives have different villains.

McConnell, as part of his mission to make this race a referendum on the administration of President Barack Obama, blames the Obama administration’s “war on coal” for the industry’s decline while Grimes points her finger at McConnell, accusing him of doing little in Congress to prevent job losses in the mines. Consequential factors in the industry’s downturn, such as the cheap supply of natural gas, have been ignored.

Still, McConnell’s decision to demonize Obama on the campaign trail seems to have paid off, as he holds a 17-point polling lead in both eastern and western Kentucky, according to the latest Bluegrass Poll.

Coal was mined from 27 counties in 2013, and results from the May primary show Grimes, for the most part, lagged her statewide margin of 76.5 percent within those eastern and western counties, averaging 69.8 percent of the vote in a primary against Democrats with little name recognition. The only counties where she topped her statewide margin in the coalfields, ironically, came in conservative-leaning Laurel, Rockcastle, Whitley and Clay counties.

McConnell averaged a 67.6 percent margin in the same 27 counties, but that exceeds his statewide margin of 60.2 percent in a primary battle with tea party-backed Republican Matt Bevin. He underperformed in two coalfield counties — McCreary and Henderson.

Central time returns

Perhaps no area has frustrated Kentucky Democratic U.S. Senate candidates more in recent years than the Central Standard Time zone.

Victory was in sight early for former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo when he ran against former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning in 2004, but that changed as the votes were tallied in the westernmost portion of the state.

He wound up carrying 15 of the 41 counties in central time, and Democrats have fared worse since.

Bruce Lunsford, who challenged McConnell in 2008, won seven of the counties in that race while Attorney General Jack Conway took five in his bid against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2010.

Grimes may outperform her fellow Democrats in central time. But keep an eye for a late swing as western Kentucky votes are counted if her race against McConnell is close by 7 p.m. eastern and the electorate in that region follows recent voting trends.

The Clinton effect

Grimes has called on both Bill and Hillary Clinton multiple times on the campaign trail, appearing with both throughout the state in her bid to unseat McConnell.

The Clintons have achieved electoral success in the Bluegrass, with Bill Clinton carrying the state twice in his successful presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 and Hillary Clinton besting Obama by more than 35 points in the 2008 Democratic primary.

It remains to be seen whether their collective popularity will equal votes for Grimes, as they appeared in Boyd, Daviess, McCracken, Perry, Campbell, Fayette and Jefferson counties during this midterm election season.

The pair also campaigned for Lunsford during his 2008 Senate run against McConnell, stumping in McCracken, Warren, Perry, Jefferson and Fayette counties. But the Clinton shine didn’t rub off on Lunsford, who won Jefferson County by 40,231 votes and Fayette by 10,426 but lost Perry by 185 votes, McCracken by 4,297 and Warren by 5,395.


Should Grimes lose, a number of observers will look to McConnell’s margin of victory as an early indicator of her potential as a gubernatorial candidate. Only one person, Gov. Steve Beshear, has rebounded politically after a loss to McConnell, and 11 years passed between his unsuccessful challenge in 1996 and his gubernatorial victory in 2007.

Some have suggested Grimes must outperform Lunsford, who lost by 6 percent to McConnell, to be a viable Democratic candidate for governor. If not, some say she may join a slate as a candidate for lieutenant governor or look down-ticket to rebuild her political capital, possibly running for attorney general.

That could rekindle the Beshear-Lundergan feud, as Andrew Beshear, son of the Democratic governor, is the only candidate in that race thus far. The younger Beshear has built a sizable war chest, collecting nearly $1.5 million since entering the race almost a year ago.

Other U.S. Senate races

McConnell’s path to majority leader in the U.S. Senate begins with a victory in Kentucky, but he’ll need help elsewhere to bring one of his central campaign themes to fruition.

Both parties have fought intense battles in states like North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Alaska as the GOP seeks six seats to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats.

It’s possible that the Senate majority could be decided well past Tuesday, as races in Georgia and Louisiana could come down to runoff elections if candidates fail to get more than 50 percent of the vote in either state. Georgia’s runoff would occur Jan. 6 and Louisiana’s Dec. 6, meaning McConnell may not know his political fate until days after New Year’s if he fends off Grimes’ challenge on Tuesday.


Grimes, as Kentucky’s secretary of state, has predicted about 49 percent of voters will hit the polls on Tuesday, a slight uptick from the last midterm election cycle in 2010, when turnout hit 48.9 percent of the electorate cast ballots.

Both campaigns have touted their turnout efforts. Volunteer registration cards became a frequent prop for Democratic speakers at Grimes events as they urged supporters to give their time in her campaign’s waning weeks.

McConnell’s campaign hasn’t slouched in that department either. The camp announced over the weekend that thousands of volunteers had logged 64,500 hours, making 2.3 million voter calls and knocking on 1 million doors for his reelection campaign.

Grimes’ campaign also took McConnell and the Republican Party of Kentucky to task for mailing a direct-mail piece to voters in eastern Kentucky that appeared to carry election violation notices. The mailers, which Grimes’ campaign said was meant to suppress Democratic voters, detailed a list of inaccuracies Grimes had made against McConnell throughout the election, and a Franklin Circuit Court judge denied the Democrat’s attempt to stop the mailings Monday.

Whether these turnout efforts prove successful will be seen in how many hit the voting booth on Tuesday.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.