Senate Preview: Democrats' slim pickings

2013-08-05 11:56
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (J Scott Applewhite, AP)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (J Scott Applewhite, AP)

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Chicago - Although the 2014 Midterm elections are unlikely to be pretty for Democrats, there are two slim pickup opportunities in the Senate which could mitigate the number of vulnerable seats the party currently holds: Kentucky and Georgia. Neither of these are a shoo-in by any means – in fact winning either one would be considered an upset, but there is more than a glimmer of hope in Kentucky, and there is precedent for what could happen in Georgia.
Just for some background, Republicans will almost certainly hold onto the House of Representatives, the lower chamber, where all of the 435 representatives, elected by geographic region, are up every two years. The upper chamber, the US Senate, has 100 members who serve six-year terms, and one-third of them are up for re-election every two years. This year 20 Democrats are up while only 13 Republicans are, meaning the numbers somewhat favour the minority party. There are also several Democrats defending seats in strongly Republican states, which means Kentucky and Georgia are likely going to see immense Democratic effort.

This is the big one, as the seat is being defended by Mitch McConnell: The most senior Republican in the Senate. Although picking up a seat would be a victory for Democrats, downing the minority leader would be a serious feather in the cap of Democrats, much like John Thune (Republican) beating then minority Tom Daschle (Democrat) was in 2004.
Democrats have found themselves a decent candidate too, Alison Ludergan Grimes, who currently serves as Kentucky’s Secretary of State, and won election to the post with a near two-thirds margin in 2012. However, she is running in a conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 (by 23 percentage points), hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the early 1990s and of its seven representatives in the House, six are Republican and only one is Democrat. However, Democrats can win statewide races in Kentucky, as two-term Governor Steve Beshear and obviously Grimes can attest. Democrats also hold a 10-seat majority in the 100-seat state House of Representatives. And Grimes will have the backing of Bill Clinton (there is a large school of thought that Clinton was more responsible for explaining Democrats’ vision to voters before the 2012 election than Obama was). In fact Clinton convinced her to enter the race. Her name is also well-known as her father, Jerry, is very involved in the state’s politics.
That all being said, however, McConnell is deeply unpopular in his own state. In fact you will struggle to find a Senator more unpopular than him – according to Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling in an April survey, McConnell has a 36% approval rating, but a 54% disapproval rating, meaning he is “upside-down” by 18 percentage points (the most in the nation). No senator has a higher disapproval rating. The same firm released results of a poll on Thursday on behalf of a liberal group that showed Grimes and McConnell in a statistical tie, although this did not match results of a Republican poll a few days earlier that showed McConnell eight points head. But even that is close enough to show this race is competitive.
The incumbent’s headache doesn’t end there, though. He is facing an intra-party challenge from the political right too, by a wealthy chap called Matt Bevin who has taken up the Tea Party mantle, and seems to have both the money and the stomach for a proper campaign. Over the weekend Bevin said, “I’m not going to run to the left of Mitch McConnell; I’m not going to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I am going to run right over the top of Mitch McConnell.” How do we know this Bevin campaign has a legitimate chance? The more libertarian Tea Partyish Rand Paul won a race against an establishment candidate last time Kentucky went out to vote for a Senator.
This all being said, McConnell has already recruited top campaign talent, including folks who helped Paul get elected, and is an absolutely formidable campaigner. He will not go down easily.

In January beautifully-named Republican senator from Georgia Saxby Chambliss announced he would retire at the end of his term. While it is widely suspected Chambliss is stepping down because he fears a primary challenge from the right, he said his decision was due to congressional “gridlock”. While Chambliss had a fairly conservative voting record, he was aware he might be targeted for his attempts to find common ground with Democrats – something that has been successfully used as a weapon by Republican political operatives before. So there is a seat vacant in a conservative, reliably Republican state, but one that has demographics that mean it could become competitive for Democrats as time goes on.

What could make this race swing is whoever Republicans choose as a candidate. Currently the pool of four vying for the nomination includes a man who believes evolution and related theorem are “lies straight from the pit of hell”; and an OBGYN who believes former Senate candidate Todd Akin was “partly right” about a woman’s body being able to shut down a pregnancy caused by “legitimate” rape (he has since said this was taken out of context). Of the other two, although one has served in elected office in the state she may be hamstrung in the eyes of the party base because she believes in abortion when the life of the mother is at risk, or she has been raped (this is the modern “moderate” position); and the other is a pretty standard Washington DC conservative (he has served 11 terms in the House). In off year elections turnout drops, which creates a bias toward the more motivated to vote: The ideologically pure. This means the latter two candidates might struggle to attract the main group of supporters they need to secure a nomination: The conservative base of the Republican Party in the state.
Should either of the latter two – Karen Handel or Jack Kingston – win the nomination, this race is pretty much settled for Republicans, who will likely stroll to victory. But a crowded primary (and there’s still a year for more people to join) will be expensive, combative and will likely force the candidates to clobber each other around. And the aforementioned low turnout is a volatile variable. And we know what can happen when unfiltered extremists win the nominations – anyone remember Todd Akin?   
The good news for Democrats is that they have a decent candidate who has joined the race: Michelle Nunn. Nunn is a famous surname in Georgia politics – Michelle’s father Sam served in the US Senate for 24 years – although Michelle herself, while not unknown, is not a household name. As things stand, she is easily the top candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination and, should fortunes go her way, could skip a messy primary, which Republican candidates will most certainly face. But her success will be reliant on continuing changing demographics, and which candidate Republicans choose. She doesn’t have a background in politics which makes it difficult to tie her to Obama or anyone really liberal (like Republicans’ favourite punching bag Nancy Pelosi), or the stagnancy of Washington DC.
Both of these races present Democrats with a mere drop of hope – very little more. But from the looks of things both Democratic candidates will compete with the full might of the party behind them. Republicans should win both… but just might not.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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