2014 Midterms: Key Issues in the Kentucky Senate

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, we’ve asked experts from the ten states with competitive Senate races to answer six questions in a spotlight on each race, providing perspective on the dynamics in the state as we head toward Election Day. In this post, Stephen Voss looks at the key issues in the Kentucky Senate race between Senator Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes.

1. What have been the three key issues in this year’s Senate race?

The issues that candidates openly debate are not necessarily the ones that have the most influence on election outcomes. A host of social and cultural issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage have caused Kentucky voters to shift rightward in national elections, but no one actually needs to talk about them much because they’ve already been absorbed into how Kentucky Republicans and Kentucky Democrats are defined. These considerations shape vote intentions before an election even starts, and show up in the earliest opinion polls. Meanwhile, much of the election banter in Kentucky has focused not on policy issues but on the national implications of the contest or, failing that, candidate-specific criticisms that lacked a policy basis. The race for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat has not done much to clarify either candidate’s issue positions. Forced to choose, though, I’d say that the main three policy issues have been coal, the economy, and immigration.

2. How have the candidates handled these issues and which candidate has been the strongest on those issues?

Both candidates jumped on the coal issue as soon as the general-election campaign kicked off. They knew it could be significant because of the role it played in helping Republican challenger Andy Barr win a rematch in 2012 against a longtime incumbent, 6th District U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, after having lost to him under more-favorable conditions in 2010. So Grimes aggressively defined herself as something that she said McConnell feared: a “pro-coal Democrat.” She openly criticized President Obama’s energy policies on the stump, attracted support from coal-miner unionists, and ran a highly visible ad campaign stressing that she was “not Barack Obama” when it came to coal (or gun control). McConnell challenged the sincerity of this pro-coal rhetoric. He characterized environmental regulations hampering the industry as part of a “War on Coal” that Grimes would support by caucusing with the Democratic Party in the Senate. McConnell’s attacks were aided by the announcement of new environmental regulations by the Obama Administration. McConnell exploited this issue as an example of how the national government imposes top-down policies with little regard for the way of life in American communities. After Grimes attended a fundraiser keynoted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and did not mention coal during her presentation, McConnell supporters condemned her silence as a contradiction of her promise to use the event to promote Kentucky coal mining, and offered it as a sign that she was not really friendly toward coal. Later, the conservative Project Veritas group released video of Grimes campaign volunteers opining that Grimes did not actually support coal and explaining that in the long run the coal industry was doomed, which anti-Grimes spokespeople characterized as an indication the Secretary of State was lying. On balance, although Grimes had some success convincing voters that she might be better for the coal industry than McConnell, especially in the mountainous region of Eastern Kentucky, the issue remained tilted toward the Republicans throughout the contest.

The sluggish economic recovery also served as a backdrop to the 2014 Kentucky Senate campaign. Kentuckians might be conservative on social and cultural issues, but they do not especially tilt to the right when it comes to domestic economic policy. It’s a poor state, and many Kentuckians rely on national social-welfare policies to get by. In particular, poor whites make up such an extensive part of the social-welfare caseload that domestic policy isn’t as racialized in the state as it is in the states of the former Confederacy.

Grimes could benefit from having the campaign pivot toward economic issues such as wages, jobs, and student loan debt. She stressed her support for increasing the minimum wage. She pushed a job-creation plan during their one televised debate, and throughout the campaign attacked McConnell repeatedly for a statement he made that it wasn’t a senator’s responsibility to direct jobs to particular Kentucky counties—saying that, if elected, sending jobs to Kentucky would be her primary job in Washington, D.C. And Grimes brought in U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) to help publicize her support for new policies to help people out of student loan obligations. McConnell responded by stating his mild opposition to the economic populism his rival was espousing, arguing instead of the need for policies that would promote economic development and therefore help people seeking well-paying employment. But he wisely did not allow the contest to take place on this terrain, more favorable to a Democrat. Turmoil in Syria and Iraq, as well as at the southern U.S. border, helped keep attention directed away from bread-and-butter economic matters.

Immigration at first seemed as though it would be another one of the social and cultural issues that shaped people’s partisan preferences without moving to the forefront of campaign debate. However, concern with immigration policy spiked after Central American children flooded the southern border and President Obama toyed with trying to push a liberalization of U.S. rules. He backed down rather than jeopardize the standing of Democratic senators struggling to hold their seats in conservative states. Rather than simply enjoy the reprieve, though, Grimes sought to turn the issue to her advantage by publicizing McConnell’s support for an immigration-policy liberalization in the 1980s that granted amnesty to some migrants who were in the United States illegally. It’s unclear how much this advertising effort helped Grimes, though, because controversy arose on the left over use of the politically incorrect phrase “illegal aliens” in the tough anti-immigration spot.

3. Have any other issues resonated specifically with key demographic groups or interests and what are the implications for the race?

Kentucky contains a disproportionately large number of swing voters who were in play for the Senate election. The same state that elected Tea Party poster child Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate in 2010 turned around in 2011 and overwhelmingly reelected Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who was liberal enough to establish a Kentucky version of the Obamacare insurance exchanges without waiting for legislative support. These relatively moderate, if not conservative, voters tend to be registered Democrats but they often side with the Republicans in national elections, and many seem to have no loyalty to either side. The battle always would be over whether McConnell could nationalize the election, getting these swing voters focused on taking Senate control from the Democrats, stopping President Obama, and retaining the benefits of seniority in the U.S. Senate—or if, instead, Grimes could localize the contest get Kentuckians to vote in the way that caused them to fill all but one of their statewide elected offices with Democrats.

The McConnell strategy therefore was simple and straightforward: Do anything and everything to link Grimes to the President. Grimes countered with repeated references to her independence, her status as a Kentucky woman or Kentucky filly, to the fact Obama’s name did not appear on the ballot. She even filmed herself (competently) shooting clay pigeons with a shotgun to stress how her Kentucky roots set her at odds with the cultural thrust of the Obama White House. Grimes calls herself a Clinton Democrat, hearkening back to the period of prosperity and bipartisan deficit reduction in the 1990s; her family ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton have allowed her to call them into Kentucky repeatedly. McConnell and Grimes appear to be splitting these swing voters fairly evenly, depending on how they’re defined, but Grimes needed a much better share than that to compensate for the conservative tilt of the state’s partisans.

4. How have outside surrogates, SuperPACs, or other outside spending played a role in the race?

Supporters of McConnell and Grimes have flooded the airwaves past the point of saturation, and they’ve bought advertisements that stalk Kentuckians as we navigate the Web. Usually this sort of outside money promotes irresponsible attack ads, but it’s hard to say that the flood of money pouring into Kentucky has worsened what the candidates already were doing themselves. Grimes has been called out so many times by national fact checkers, even repeating claims that had already been debunked, that McConnell tried to score points in their debate by telling the audience about how many “Pinnochios” the Grimes ads had accumulated.

5. Midterms are often characterized by low turnout. What are your expectations about voter apathy/engagement in this race?

Grimes has slipped in the polls recently, even with the one independent polling group that has stood apart from the others and sometimes characterized her as being ahead: the Bluegrass Poll. If the contest starts to look noncompetitive, turnout might come in at disappointing levels. But the Democrats reportedly have poured significant time and money into Get Out the Vote efforts in Louisville and elsewhere, trying to replicate their previous successes mobilizing the base in states like Colorado. If Democrats have any hope of erasing the growing deficit in the polls on Election Day, it would need to be by delivering hordes of “unlikely” voters to the ballot boxes—proving the Likely Voter filters used in most polls to be incorrect somehow.  That would be a real longshot unless polls tighten up, but no one can say for sure that it’s impossible.

6. National media attention to this Senate race has been substantial. What important aspects have the media overlooked that may surprise outside observers on Election Day?

National journalists struggle to understand the Kentucky electorate, and when they’ve covered this contest, they’ve often not delved deeply into it. So national coverage has tended to focus on the wrong things. For example, when Grimes refused to say whether she voted for Barack Obama—first in an interview with a newspaper editorial board, later during her televised debate with McConnell—national journalists widely regarded her campaign as doomed. Around the same time, the Senate campaign committee neglected to buy new ads in Kentucky, leading to news coverage about how the Democrats were abandoning Grimes because she couldn’t win. This story line faltered when a Bluegrass Poll came out showing the race close and when Grimes reported excellent fundraising numbers for the 3rd quarter, but might return with a vengeance now that she’s behind in the Bluegrass Poll as well. Nonetheless, the media coverage was wrong: Only a third of Kentucky voters blame Grimes for keeping her vote private, and most of those survey respondents were never going to elect Grimes anyhow. The surprise has already come: A candidate whom the expert prognosticators gave little chance of victory has kept the 2014 Senate race in Kentucky competitive all through the election season, making her look nothing like the almost-lost cause described on Internet forecasting pages.