Making Mitch McConnell pay

The obstructionist-in-chief's failure to make Obama a one-termer gives him his best chance at survival in '14

Published February 20, 2013 12:42PM (EST)

There’s been no end to the grief Mitch McConnell’s taken for his declaration early in Barack Obama’s first term that his party’s top goal was to make Obama a one-term president. Ironically, though, the failure of McConnell and the GOP to realize their goal may be the best thing he has going for him as 2014 approaches.

McConnell has been the Senate minority leader since 2006, succeeding Bill Frist just as the party lost its majority in the chamber. Twice in his tenure – in 2010 and again in 2012 – Republicans have seemed poised to win back the majority only to fall short thanks to a combination of counterproductive primary results and a national image problem that turned off swing voters in key races. As ’14 approaches, Republicans are again looking at a favorable map, though it would take some big breaks for them to overcome the Democrats' current 55-45 advantage. But McConnell himself has a much simpler concern: saving his own job.

The Kentuckian, who turns 71 on Wednesday, has never exactly been beloved in his home state, where voters have moved closer to the GOP in recent years but are still more than willing to vote Democratic. In his first campaign, back in 1984, McConnell scored an upset over incumbent Democrat Walter Huddleston by a fraction of a point, a victory owed entirely to Ronald Reagan’s formidable coattails. When McConnell last faced the voters, in 2008, he held on by 6 points against Democrat Bruce Lunsford – this on the same day that John McCain carried Kentucky by 16 points. And in early polling for ’14, he’s running under 50 percent and leading Ashley Judd, the Kentucky native and Hollywood actress who is edging closer to a candidacy, by a high single-digit margin.

Senate leaders have become irresistible targets for the rival party’s activists in recent years. The trend was kicked off in 2004, when Republicans made toppling Democratic leader Tom Daschle one of their top priorities. The GOP recruited a top-notch candidate, John Thune, poured millions into his coffers and even coaxed then-Majority Leader Bill Frist into coming to South Dakota on Thune’s behalf – a violation of a tradition of party leaders refraining from each other’s home state battles. The gambit worked and Daschle was defeated in a close race. Democrats then made a serious run at McConnell in ’08, although Majority Leader Harry Reid stayed away from Kentucky during the race, and Republicans made Reid their No. 1 Senate target in ’10; if GOP primary voters hadn’t insisted on nominating the erratic, self-destructive Sharron Angle, Reid would likely have been felled.

And now it’s McConnell’s turn to face a full-court press from the other party. Already, a liberal group has aired an anti-McConnell ad in Kentucky, criticizing the minority leader for his opposition to a new assault weapons ban. Under any circumstance, grass-roots Democrats would be excited over the prospect of giving McConnell a fight. But his emergence as the face of reflexive Republican opposition to Obama and his agenda has only ratcheted up the left’s resolve to make him pay.

The question is whether they can actually beat him. The good news for Democrats is that Kentucky isn’t quite the Republican bastion it’s often thought of as. Sure, it’s voted Republican by lopsided margins in the last four presidential elections, but Bill Clinton did manage to carry it twice in the 1990s. It also boasts an impressive run of Democratic governors. The state’s top job is now held by Steve Beshear, a second-term Democrat, and only three Republicans (Ernie Fletcher, Louie Nunn and Simeon Willis) have held it over the last 70 years. Democrats also control one of the state’s two legislative chambers, and while no Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race since Wendell Ford in 1992, the party has come close a few times: In addition to McConnell’s 6-point scare in ’08, Republican Jim Bunning only narrowly fended off Daniel Mongiardo in 2004 and Scotty Baesler in 1998.

So Kentucky is willing to vote Democratic, McConnell has never set the world on fire at the ballot box, and after 30 years of incumbency a change message could be a formidable weapon against him. Plus, as my colleague Alex Seitz-Wald wrote on Tuesday, Tea Party groups in Kentucky – which mobilized behind Rand Paul in 2010 to defeat McConnell’s protégé, Trey Grayson, in a Senate primary – are threatening to challenge McConnell in a primary, which could force him farther to the right and away from the general election mainstream.

And now the bad news for Democrats: There’s reason to believe that Kentucky has moved farther to the right – and grown more hostile to the national Democratic Party – since President Obama came to office. Nationally, Obama’s popular vote margin was down last November from its ’08 level, but Kentuckians turned against him particularly hard. In ’08, he lost the state by 16 points, but last November the margin was 22. To put that in some perspective, that’s even worse than Walter Mondale fared in Kentucky in 1984, when he lost the state by 21 points amid a 19-point national landslide defeat. Obama’s unpopularity in the state was driven home last spring, when a majority of the state’s counties voted for “uncommitted” over the president in the Democratic primary. Since Obama became president, Democrats have also lost one of their House seats in the state, leaving them with just one.

Race has clearly played a role in Kentucky’s Obama-phobia, as it has in other swaths of Appalachia. The Obama administration’s supposed “war on coal” is a big factor too. These attitudes aren’t likely to dull in the next 21 months, which will give McConnell a chance to survive simply by linking his opponent to the president. Already, an attack ad from a Karl Rove affiliated group is bashing Judd as “an Obama-following radical Hollywood liberal.” Judd was an active campaigner for Obama last year and was a delegate (from Tennessee) for him at the Democratic convention. She’s also spoken out against mountain top coal mining, which could play right into the GOP’s “war on coal” theme.

There’s also the matter of Judd herself. She has Kentucky roots, comes from a famous country music family, and is a visible and vocal presence at University of Kentucky basketball games. So she has some serious ammunition to fight charges of carpetbagging. And she’ll obviously be able to raise a ton of money. But Republicans have some ammunition of their own, to portray her as a cultural elite who’s too close to Obama. Judd’s candidacy would attract national attention and money, but it’s not clear she’s the best option for Democrats. If she runs, though, the nomination will probably be hers.

One look at his electoral history shows that McConnell has been ripe for a serious challenge for years. He’s going to get it next year. If he survives, ironically enough, he’ll have the president to thank for it. Without the Obama boogeyman to run against, he wouldn't have much else going for him.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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