Why the McConnell re-election race will be epic and unprecedented

07/21/2013 05:23 PM

Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. Senate race won’t just be groundbreaking in the Bluegrass State for the money that will be raised and spent, for national attention and potentially for its vitriol.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s bid for a sixth term will be the first of its kind in the modern era of national campaigning.

With this week’s expected entrance into the race of tea party candidate Matt Bevin – a Louisville businessman who can kick in his own money – McConnell now faces a primary challenger who can’t be taken lightly. And should McConnell win the primary, he will likely face a big-name, well-funded Democratic challenger next fall in Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Three other Democrats have announced their intent to run as well.

That’s a path no sitting U.S. Senate minority or majority leader has had to navigate in the modern era.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid had a tough general election in 2010 but emerged from the primary unscathed against three candidates who raised no money. Before him, Tom Daschle, lost his general election in 2004 to Republican John Thune but was unopposed in the South Dakota Democratic primaries in both 1998 and 2004 while he was leader. McConnell’s predecessor as Republican leader, Bill Frist, didn’t seek re-election while he was his party’s leader. And Trent Lott never faced more than token Democratic opposition in the 2000 election while he served as the Republicans’ leader.

One has to go back to 1978 to find a sitting party leader whose general election opposition even gained more than 40 percent (Republican Leader Howard Baker’s opponent in Tennessee had 40.3% that year).

While the road to re-election is anything but clear for McConnell, the path to unseating McConnell might be even more challenging for Grimes, Bevin and the others.

Consider the last decade worth of U.S. Senate elections:

  • Incumbents rule. Since 2004, just 18 incumbents lost out of the 132 who have sought re-election. That’s a more than 86% re-election rate.
  • Of those who lost, 15 fell in the general elections and three in the primaries: Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar in 2012; Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010; and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary after he switched parties. (The numbers don’t count Joe Lieberman and Lisa Murkowski, who lost their party nominations but won in the fall, Lieberman as an independent and Murkowski as a write-in.)
  • Experience generally insulates. Of the 18 who lost, 10 of them had served two or fewer terms. Only three had served longer than three terms: Specter, who served five; Lugar, who served six; and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who was appointed for four years and served six more full terms.

That being said, there is no template for what Kentuckians are about to see with McConnell facing a challenger from the right who has resources to bolster his effort and the full force of the Democratic Party against a much younger, yet established candidate.

It’s tempting to look to Reid’s narrow re-election as a guide. But that’s even an unfair comparison.

Reid had a primary that he won with 75% of the vote against a Reno nurse and two perennial candidates, including a Republican who changed his registration. All three finished below the 11 percent that “none of the above” received from Nevada Democratic voters.

Reid was able to overcome that signal of weakness because he faced a Republican challenger who proved to be even weaker. Sharron Angle narrowly won a crowded GOP primary with 40% of the vote and proceeded to make numerous mistakes that allowed Reid to effectively paint her as a fringe candidate who wasn’t ready for prime-time. It’s unlikely McConnell will get that lucky.

Here’s how rare this type of a path is for any incumbent, let alone a leader of his party in the U.S. Senate:

  • Of the 15 who lost in general elections over the last decade, seven had contested primaries.
  • In those seven contested primaries, in only three instances did a challenger get at least 20 percent of the vote against the incumbent:
    Conrad Burns in Montana in 2006 won the Republican nomination 72.3% to 22.3%;
    Ted Stevens in Alaska in 2008 won the Republican primary 63.5% to 26.9% with six others getting a smattering of votes; and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas in 2010 had the toughest primary of all the incumbents, squeaking by for the Democratic nomination over then-Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, 44% to 42.5% with a third candidate drawing nearly 13%.
  • Of those three incumbents, only Lincoln faced a challenger with any substantial money and backing.

Myriad factors go into any upset of an incumbent. But of the 18, four common themes emerged in coverage of each of the campaigns:
1. A national wave for the other party
2. The incumbent was tinged by scandal
3. The state was or had become tough for any candidate in the incumbent’s party to win
4. And voters decided it was time for a change.

In many cases, it was a combination of two or more of those factors. (Specter’s situation was the most unusual, given that he had switched from being a Republican to Democrat and not enough of that party’s voters either knew or trusted him enough to nominate him).

At this point, McConnell will likely have to defend on just one front: the time for a change argument.

He hasn’t been directly linked to any major scandal, Kentucky has gone red in every U.S. Senate race after 1992 and every presidential race since 2000, and a mid-term election during a Democratic president’s second term with the Democrats controlling the Senate makes it unlikely that an anti-Republican wave is brewing in 2014.

So this race will be all about McConnell.

Given all those factors, three recent upsets of incumbents might give glimpses at what Kentuckians can expect.

Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s loss in 2004

Daschle’s loss was unprecedented.

He was the first sitting party leader in the Senate since 1952 to lose a re-election race in his home state. It marked the first time in anyone’s memory that a sitting leader – Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist — personally campaigned against another leader. And Daschle was the only incumbent out of the 26 running for re-election to lose that year.

It was a nail-biter with former Republican Congressman John Thune, who was coming off a loss for U.S. Senate two years earlier, winning by 4,508 votes (50.5% to 49.4%).

Like McConnell, Daschle began airing ads the summer before his re-election year to try and blunt his opponent’s accusations that he had lost touch with constituents.

Just as Democrats are doing to McConnell, Republicans painted Daschle as an obstructionist to the agenda of the president, who was George W. Bush at the time.

Here’s how the election night story from the New York Times described Thune’s strategy:

In one particularly hard-hitting advertisement, entitled “In his Own Words,” the Thune campaign showed film clips of Senator Daschle saying, “I’m a D.C. resident.” The clips were meant to reinforce a theme Mr. Thune used often in his campaign, that Senator Daschle was more a creature of Washington than South Dakota.
Senator Daschle responded by touting the millions he brought back to South Dakota in federal grant money. His message to voters was simple: Don’t replace a leader with a freshman.

McConnell has essentially said that will be one of his campaign themes.

The news coverage of the Daschle-Thune race touted the combined $30 million spent on the race. McConnell is expected to raise around that amount by himself. And that’s not counting what independent groups and super PACs can do. Super PACs that could raise unlimited amounts from corporations didn’t exist during Daschle’s race.

In the end, though, it was a feeling among South Dakota voters that Daschle was no longer one of them that was the senator’s undoing.

An article on Election Night by Mike Madden of Gannett News Service quoted voters explaining their switch to Thune this way:

Thune’s campaign message that Daschle had lost touch with South Dakota seemed to resonate with a cross-section of voters who reflected on their votes. ‘‘Daschle’s been there too long,’‘ said Dale Baker, 75, of Burke. ‘‘It’s time for somebody else.’‘
Dick Fennel, 57, a farmer from Elk Point, said he and his wife both voted for Thune. ‘‘We just don’t feel Daschle has been representing our views. He’s just way too liberal for the state of South Dakota,’‘ Fennel said.

Blanche Lincoln falls to John Boozman in 2010

This race is the most extreme example of how damaging a primary can be.

Lincoln faced several problems McConnell won’t. She was a Democrat in a state where President Obama was unpopular. And she was quoted as saying she was proud to be the decisive vote to pass Obamacare. Republicans used both of those factors against her.

But like McConnell, the previous election portended potential weakness. A little-known challenger got 44% of the vote against Lincoln in her 2004 race. For McConnell, he only won in 2008 by 5.5 points against Bruce Lunsford, a flawed Democratic candidate who was never fully forgiven by many Kentucky Democrats for his handling of the 2003 governor’s race and whose business dealings were easy targets for McConnell.

And a tough attack from Lincoln’s own ranks did damage her – a risk McConnell now faces.

Seth Blomeley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote in his Nov. 4, 2010, recap of the race that:

Lincoln also had detractors from the left over her being against the federal “cap and trade” pollution-control legislation and for her calls for a low estate tax. Unions turned on her after she sided with business interests in opposing a bill to make it easier to unionize, a bill she previously co-sponsored.

Plus, Lincoln out-raised John Boozman but spent the lion’s share of her money to ensure she won her party’s nomination. Of the more than $11 million she raised, about $9 million of it was spent before June.

Conrad Burns loses to Jon Tester in 2006

This race perhaps offers the best template for McConnell’s challengers.

At the time, Burns was a three-term incumbent Republican tainted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. That fed in to the anti-incumbent arguments used by Jon Tester, who was then the Democratic state Senate president.

But Tester widened the argument to accuse Burns of “going Washington.” He also effectively blunted Republicans’ arguments that he was “a puppet of liberal special-interest groups,” as the Associated Press reported in June 2006.

Both his appearance – that of a flat-topped, burly farmer — and his plain speaking made it so those lines never stuck.

One of the main criticisms of Tester, which Grimes has already heard from Republicans, was that he lacked specifics in answers about national policies. But here’s what Gwen Florio, reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, wrote on the Oct. 15, 2006:

When asked about Iraq, for instance, Tester chides Burns and the Bush administration for not having a plan. He says he wants U.S. troops home as soon as possible, but when details are sought, he speaks only of working with U.S. allies, and training Iraqi troops.
(The Cook Political Report’s Jennifer) Duffy said that speaks to Tester’s inexperience. “When the race isn’t about you, then there’s not a whole lot of sense sticking your nose out,” she said.

Burns used the seniority argument against Tester just like McConnell has been using. Burns was on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee which “is what allows him to direct millions of federal dollars to Montana,” as Florio reported.

Tester said that, if he wins, he can compensate for his freshman status by dint of hard work.
“I’m not going back (to Washington) to be a wallflower,” he said, speaking as he does these days of the future in terms of “when” instead of “if.”

Burns, though, started in more trouble in the polls than what McConnell’s numbers show now. During the primary elections, Burns was trailing in polling against Tester and the other Democrat whom Tester ultimately defeated.

McConnell still starts slightly ahead in the early polling in Kentucky. But it’s close. And it’s likely to get closer.


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