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“I remember being with Nancy Pelosi, who was complaining about people demonstrating outside of her house in San Francisco,” McConnell said in a recent interview. “I was smiling, thinking that if the left is unhappy with Nancy, then it probably says that it all goes with the job these days — you become the focal point for people who are unhappy with you about whatever.”
A veteran Senate Democratic aide described it “as an unfortunate reality of being a leader today. Your opposition is going to put a bull’s-eye on you.”
That is clearly the case with McConnell, who is vying for a fifth term in conservative Kentucky and has come under a barrage of attacks from Democrats and leftist organizations for the better part of a year. Leaving nothing to chance, McConnell as of Wednesday had raised $9.8 million for his re-election this cycle and had $7.2 million in the bank, according to his campaign. But his approval ratings at home are stuck around the 50 percent mark.
While they have yet to recruit a challenger, Democrats say they believe McConnell is weak enough at home to make him a worthwhile target in 2008. They privately acknowledge that because McConnell is the leader, it is far easier to try to tie him to an unpopular president and his policies, while raising money and national attention to try to defeat him.
Asked whether he believes he would be targeted if he weren’t the GOP leader, McConnell responded: “Probably not. How focused they really are, we don’t know yet. I tell my friends, there’s a lot of opposition, but there’s not an opponent yet. But I will not be smug about this. I assume this is going to be a hard race.”
In many ways, McConnell — running as a Republican in a GOP-leaning state — has an advantage over a candidate like Daschle, who was trying to balance his role as the leader of a liberal Caucus while running for re-election in a conservative state. And while the war is increasingly unpopular, as is President Bush, the outgoing president still bested Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 20 points in Kentucky in 2004.
Democrats, however, believe the larger national focus on politics these days makes it easier to weaken an otherwise secure Senator.
“People in Texas are interested in Kentucky,” one Democratic operative suggested. “You see what’s happening in the blogs — races have more of a national following than they did 10 years ago. Then of course, any race involving the leader of a party has that much more of a national following because of the high-profile nature of it.”
Taking the Numbers Down
Perhaps that’s why Majority Leader Reid already is laying the groundwork to run for reelection in 2010, three years away. Reid has seen his home-state popularity fall in recent months to new lows, with an October Las Vegas Review-Journal poll showing his favorability at just 32 percent with Nevadans, compared with a 51 percent unfavorable ranking.
Nevada is a battleground state that Bush narrowly carried in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote. And while Reid won re-election handily in 2002 against a weak opponent, he barely eked out a victory over then-challenger and now-Sen. Ensign in 1996.