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McConnell’s Influence Still Strong in Kentucky

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Republicans in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky are bracing for a loss in November’s gubernatorial election.

In the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican establishment that he helped build is poised for a second loss in as many cycles in next month's gubernatorial race.

A late September poll of likely voters showed state Senate President David Williams (R) down by 31 points against Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

In interviews with a dozen political operatives familiar with Kentucky politics — Democratic and Republican, in the Bluegrass State and Washington, D.C., affiliated with the Minority Leader and not — the consensus was that McConnell will weather Williams' expected blowout loss with his influence and reputation completely unscathed.

While he has attended a handful of events and has held a few fundraisers for Williams, McConnell hasn't appeared in ads for the candidate and isn't seen as tied to him. The Minority Leader is substantially less involved in this race than he was in the GOP Senate primary last year, when then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson lost to now-Sen. Rand Paul. That was a defeat for McConnell. This election will be different.

Kentucky-based Democratic consultant Jim Cauley said McConnell's reputation is very unlikely to change after the Nov. 8 contest.

"He's such a force here, I couldn't imagine [Williams' loss] has any impact."

"The guy is so big and he does so much and he brings home the bacon for the state. I mean, between him and [House Appropriations Chairman] Hal Rogers [R-Ky.], Lord goodness," Cauley said.

The unique contours of the race, coupled with the difficulty the GOP has had in the past decades in putting a Republican in the governor's mansion in Frankfort, means that there are few larger national takeaways from the race, Bluegrass State politicos said. Since 1972, nine men have served as the chief executive of the commonwealth; only one, Ernie Fletcher, was a Republican.

But a Beshear victory would be more than just the result of historical trends, with Kentucky voters leaning Republican in most federal elections while being open to backing Democrats statewide. The governor has also run a solid bid for his second term.

"I think Beshear has run an exceptionally smart campaign for re-election," former McConnell Chief of Staff Billy Piper said. "It's kind of remarkable that an incumbent at any level is able to maintain strong favorability ratings in this toxic environment."

"Beshear has done a real good job of making it about Kentucky and Kentucky issues," Cauley added, echoing a point a number of Republicans made. "And the other side hasn't done very good at all at tying federal issues to Beshear."

It has been particularly difficult for Williams to fully separate himself from Beshear because, as Senate President, every piece of legislation the governor signed went through the legislative body he controls.

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