A report over the weekend suggested that actress Ashley Judd has decided to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky next year. According to Howard Fineman, who once covered Kentucky politics and remains well-connected in the state, Judd already has a pollster, has been interviewing consultants and potential staffers, and is eyeing an official rollout around the Kentucky Derby, held annually on the first Saturday in May.
Because of her star power and because of the political power of the man she wants to unseat, Judd’s flirtation with the race has drawn considerable national attention, and the coverage will only intensify if she gets in. That has led Dave Weigel, among others, to argue that the political world’s focus on Judd is misplaced – that her party label, liberal views and Hollywood background are all a poor match for an electorate that has become increasingly Republican over the last few decades.
It’s a fair point, one to keep in mind if and when Judd does enter the race. Yes, McConnell, who was first elected in 1984, is not exactly beloved in Kentucky right now. But in going after a Republican senator in a red state, it’s worth examining what Judd would be up against. The best way to frame her challenge is to look at all of the incumbent senators who have been defeated since 2000, the year that the basic red state/blue state divide we’ve lived with for four consecutive presidential elections first took shape:
- Delaware: William Roth (R) defeated by Tom Carper by 11.8 points
- Michigan: Spencer Abraham (R) defeated by Debbie Stabenow by 1.5
- Minnesota: Rod Grams (R) defeated by Mark Dayton by 5.5
- Missouri: John Ashcroft (R) defeated by Mel Carnahan by 2*
- Arkansas: Tim Hutchinson (R) defeated by Mark Pryor by 7.8
- Georgia: Max Cleland (D) defeated by Saxby Chambliss by 6.8
- Missouri: Jean Carnahan defeated by Jim Talent by 1.1*
- New Hampshire: Bob Smith (R) defeated in primary by John Sununu by 9.2
- South Dakota: Tom Daschle (D) defeated by John Thune by 1.1
- Missouri: Jim Talent (R) defeated by Claire McCaskill by 2.4
- Montana: Conrad Burns (R) defeated by Jon Tester by 0.9
- Ohio: Mike DeWine (R) defeated by Sherrod Brown by 12.4
- Pennsylvania: Rick Santorum (R) defeated by Bob Casey by 17.4
- Virginia: George Allen (R) defeated by Jim Webb by 0.4
- Alaska: Ted Stevens (R) defeated by Mark Begich by 1.2
- Minnesota: Norm Coleman (R) defeated by Al Franken by 0.01
- New Hampshire: John Sununu (R) defeated by Jeanne Shaheen by 6.5
- North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole (R) defeated by Kay Hagan by 8.5
- Oregon: Gordon Smith (R) defeated by Jeff Merkley by 3.3
- Arkansas: Blanche Lincoln (D) defeated by John Boozman by 21.1
- Pennsylvania: Arlen Specter (D) defeated in primary by Joe Sestak by 7.8 **
- Wisconsin: Russ Feingold (D) defeated by Ron Johnson by 4.9
- Indiana: Richard Lugar (R) defeated by Richard Mourdock in primary by 21
- Massachusetts: Scott Brown (R) defeated by Elizabeth Warren by 7.4
*Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash before the election, but his name remained on the ballot and Roger Wilson (who succeeded Carnahan as governor upon his death) promised to appoint his widow, Jean Carnahan, if he won the most votes on Election Day
** Specter was originally elected as a Republican in 1980 and was subsequently reelected as a Republican four times, but he switched parties in early 2009
So in the last seven rounds of Senate elections, a total of 24 incumbents have run and been defeated. That’s it. (Granted, there are plenty of examples of senators who sensed reelection peril and opted to retire instead; it’s fair to say they were at least pressured by public opinion into retirement.) And of these 24 cases, most were produced by conditions that Judd won’t benefit from in Kentucky next year.
We can start by throwing out Smith (New Hampshire, 2002), Specter (Pennsylvania, 2010) and Lugar (Indiana, 2012), since those involved incumbents losing in primaries. It’s certainly not out of the question that McConnell will end up facing a serious intraparty challenge, but for this exercise, we’re assuming he’ll be his party’s candidate in ’14. So that reduces the number of races that might offer hope to Judd to 21.
Next, take the basic matter of a state’s partisan bent. Many of the incumbents who were defeated suffered because their party label just wasn’t in sync with the electorate. From that original list of 24, here are the incumbents who lost in states that had voted for the opposite party’s presidential candidate in each of the three most recent presidential elections:
- Roth (Delaware, 2000)
- Abraham (Michigan, 2000)
- Grams (Minnesota, 2000)
- Daschle (South Dakota, 2004)
- Santorum (Pennsylvania, 2006)
- Coleman (Minnesota, 2008)
- Smith (Oregon, 2008)
- Lincoln (Arkansas, 2010)
- Brown (Massachusetts, 2012)
(Note: in many of these cases, the incumbent’s reelection year coincided with a presidential race, which I’m counting as one of the three most recent presidential elections.)
McConnell won’t face this same handicap in ’14. Kentucky voted for the Republican White House candidate by 22.7 points last November, 16.2 points in 2008 and 19.9 in 2004. So if we throw the above races out, that brings us down to 12 that might be at least somewhat analogous to Kentucky ’14. And we can reduce this number further by acknowledging that few of the defeated incumbents enjoyed anything like the partisan advantage that McConnell will have next year; here are those who lost in states that didn’t vote for their party’s candidate in each of the three most recent presidential elections:
- Ashcroft (Missouri, 2000)
- Cleland (Georgia, 2002)
- Talent (Missouri, 2006)
- DeWine (Ohio, 2006)
- Sununu (New Hampshire, 2008)
So that leaves us with a total of four races since 2000 in which the incumbent – like McConnell will next year – ran in a state that had voted for his or her party in the three most recent presidential elections. Let’s look closer at each of them:
Incumbent: Conrad Burns (R) seeking a fourth term
3 most recent presidential elections: R+20.5 (2004), R+25 (2000), R+2.9 (1996)
Result: Jon Tester 49.2%, Burns 48.3%
Why this offers hope for Judd: Burns, like McConnell, entered the race with relatively weak home state popularity. Six years earlier, when George W. Bush had won the states by 25 points over Al Gore, Burns had barely defeated his Democratic challenger, (a pre-gubernatorial) Brian Schweitzer by 3 points.
Why this doesn’t offer hope for Judd: Burns had extra baggage in ’06 because his name was linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Plus, ’06 was one of the best years of the past generation for Democrats, when a popular backlash against Republican rule of Washington carried Democrats back to control of the House and Senate. But Democrats will be the White House party in 2014, and the tide has rarely favored the in-party in midterm elections – and when it has, it’s been a very weak tide. Also, Montana Democrats in ’06 nominated a pro-gun farmer whose personal story and ideology probably made it easier for Republican-friendly voters who thought it was time for Burns to go to cast their ballots for a Democrat.
Incumbent: George Allen (R) seeking a second term
3 most recent presidential elections: R+8.2 (2004), R+8 (2000), R+2 (1996)
Result: Jim Webb 49.6%, Allen 49.2%
Why this offers hope to Judd: Because on the surface this is a case of a Democratic challenger beating a Republican incumbent in a red state.
Why this doesn’t offer hope to Judd: Because Virginia in 2006 was not a blue state in the same way that Kentucky is now a red state. In ’06, the Old Dominion was in the midst of a demographic transformation that would land it in the Democratic column in the next two presidential elections. Kentucky, on the other hand, has become more Republican-friendly in the Obama years. Also, with Burns in Montana, Allen had extra baggage (the “macaca” and n-word controversies that erupted in the fall) and was running against a ferocious national Democratic tide.
Incumbent: Ted Stevens (R) seeking his eighth term
3 most recent presidential elections: R+21.5 (2008), R+25.6 (2000), R+ 17.5 (1996)
Result: Mark Begich 47.8%, Stevens 46.6%
Why this offers hope to Judd: Finally a state where the incumbent’s partisan advantage was similar to what McConnell will have in Kentucky!
Why this doesn’t offer hope to Judd: The incumbent sought reelection while under federal indictment and was convicted on seven corruption-related felony counts just days before the election. And even in the face of this, he still almost won! (Stevens’ conviction was later voided after revelations of prosecutorial misconduct.)
Incumbent: Russ Feingold (D) seeking a fourth term
3 most recent presidential elections: D+13.9 (2008), D+0.4 (2004), D+0.2 (2000)
Result: Ron Johnson 51.9%, Feingold 47%
Why this offers hope to Judd: It really doesn’t.
Why this doesn’t offer hope to Judd: Wisconsin has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, but as the margins above show it’s not an overwhelmingly Democratic state. So in the climate of 2010, when a massive anti-Democratic tide built thanks to the Great Recession and the Democrats’ monopoly on power in DC, Wisconsin turned out Feingold (and also elected a conservative Republican governor Scott Walker). A similar anti-Republican tide in ‘14 is hard to imagine, given that Democrats control the White House.
This is not to say that Judd, or whomever Democrats nominate, will have no chance against McConnell. He’s not that popular with Kentucky voters, he had a close call in 2008, and while the state has become reliably Republican at the presidential level, it still has a Democratic tradition and it’s hardly impossible for a Democrat to win a statewide race. But there are remarkably few recent examples of Senate incumbents losing in states where their party enjoys the kind of edge Republicans now have in Kentucky. And Judd figures to be a particularly ripe target for the GOP, given the very liberal views she’s already staked out. It would probably take a huge Democratic tide or an indictment of McConnell (or maybe both?) to propel her to victory in ’14. And that’s a lot to hope for.