Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is arguably Donald Trump’s most critical ally and the Kentucky Republican gets to run for reelection in a state the president will win easily in November. But that doesn’t guarantee McConnell will win this fall.
It would take an unconventional strategy by Democrats to pull off the upset and make McConnell the first Senate party leader to lose reelection since 2004, when Republicans knocked off Democrat Tom Daschle in South Dakota. Though, in this case, McConnell gets to run with the partisan lean of his state.
Virtually all of the reasons Democrats around the country loathe the GOP leader are assets to a Republican running in Kentucky. Carrying the president’s water and reshaping the judicial system for a generation by confirming judges may help likely Democratic nominee Amy McGrath raise millions, but they are not liabilities for McConnell.
That’s why sober Democratic strategists admit that McGrath doesn’t have a chance of winning a majority of the vote in the general election in a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016. According to Inside Elections’ Baseline metric, which measures all partisan statewide and congressional races over the last four cycles, Republicans have a 57 percent to 42 percent advantage statewide.
McGrath’s only viable path is to win with less than 50 percent, but still score more votes than McConnell. Democrats believe there are enough conservative voters who believe McConnell is not close enough to Trump that they will support a third-party candidate or skip the race entirely. It’s a tough sell, but there’s no reason to dismiss the scenario six months from the election.
Under the best possible conditions, against a historically unpopular incumbent in a non-federal race without Trump boosting turnout at the top of the ballot, Democrat Andy Beshear was elected Kentucky governor last year with 49.2 percent. McGrath doesn’t have the same bona fides as Beshear (he was a statewide elected official and his father served two terms as governor), but she’s still a credible contender, albeit with some baggage.
The retired Marine Corps fighter pilot can’t rely on getting enough Trump voters crossing over to double-cross McConnell, particularly after Republicans remind Kentuckians what she told supporters at a Massachusetts fundraiser last cycle: “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” she said.
It’s easy to downgrade McGrath’s chances because of that remark, the Republican nature of Kentucky, and her 2018 loss to GOP Rep. Andy Barr in the Lexington-based 6th District.
It’s also easy to dismiss her fundraising as simply thousands of Democratic donors around the country throwing millions of dollars away as they did with Jon Ossoff in the 2017 Georgia special election or with Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Texas Senate race.
McGrath’s fundraising prowess, however, is key to toppling McConnell. Through the end of March, she raised nearly $30 million, compared with $25 million brought in by McConnell. And she was just a couple of hundred thousand behind the leader in cash on hand (about $15 million each). McGrath has already raised more than McConnell’s last Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was outspent by McConnell, $31 million to $19 million, in the 2014 race.
In 2018, McGrath was a tremendous fundraiser as well, but not an extraordinary candidate. She had a 1.04 Vote Above Replacement rating, according to the Inside Elections metric which compares a candidate’s vote total to the generic partisan performance in the district. McConnell isn’t particularly special either: his VAR score was -1.08 in 2014 when he won a sixth term. That means he underperformed a generic GOP candidate by a little more than 1 point.
In short, McGrath will have more than enough money to take care of herself. That frees outside Democratic groups to get more creative.
Instead piling attacks on McConnell, those groups are probably better off boosting third-party candidate Brad Barron. The libertarian farmer and businessman already shares a common mission and motto with Democrats: “It’s time to ‘Ditch Mitch.’ Vote for The Barron!” Democrats will likely promote Barron as a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment constitutional conservative and try to portray McConnell as a creature of Washington, considering he was first elected to the Senate at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Barron filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 17 but hasn’t filed since. Which means he’s raised and spent less than $5,000 on his campaign.
Even without much of an initial public profile, two Democratic polls from January showed Barron receiving 5 percent and 7 percent of the vote respectively. The same surveys showed McGrath narrowly behind (43-40 percent in the Garin-Hart-Yang survey) or tied (at 41 percent, according to Change Research) with McConnell.
Being close in the polls isn’t new for McConnell. Six years ago, he was running even with or narrowly ahead of Grimes in the spring and summer before opening up a lead in the fall and ultimately winning by 16 points. But the national political environment will not be as favorable to Republicans this year as it was during President Barack Obama’s second midterm, and McConnell won’t outspend McGrath by $12 million.
Sometimes polls can overstate support for a third party candidate because respondents are given the name of an individual. But the surveys demonstrate how the dynamic of the race can change with a significant third-party presence. Libertarian nominees in Kentucky received 2 percent in the 2019 gubernatorial election and 3 percent in the 2014 Senate race, but without the financial backing Barron is likely to receive.
Of course, the scenario isn’t unprecedented. Democratic interests promoted Libertarian Dan Cox in the 2012 Montana Senate race with radio and TV commercials touting him as the “real conservative” in the race in order to siphon votes from GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg. Similar to Barron, Cox didn’t raise and spend enough to file with the FEC, yet he received 6.6 percent of the vote as Democratic incumbent Jon Tester was wining reelection 48.6 percent to 44.6 percent.
It’s the amount of money that could break the mold. Ditch Mitch, a Democratic group officially registered as the Ditch Fund, had $3.9 million at the end of March. That doesn’t include money it will raise over the next six months or that could be spent by Senate Majority PAC, the go-to Democratic outside group for Senate races, or an independent expenditure by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Even if McGrath doesn’t win, her spending in combination with Ditch Mitch will cause Republicans to spend money in Kentucky and divert resources from other competitive races. Senate Leadership Fund, the go-to GOP outside group for Senate races, has already reserved $10.8 million in TV ads through a group called “Keep Kentucky Great” to boost McConnell. That’s money that can’t be spent defending other, more vulnerable GOP incumbents or playing offense in a state such as Michigan.
The road in Kentucky is still difficult for Democrats, who must demonstrate there are enough Trump voters so disappointed by McConnell that they’re willing to risk Democratic control of the Senate during the president’s second term by voting for McGrath, Barron, or skipping the race. If McConnell can consolidate Trump voters, the race is over. That’s why we’re not changing the rating from Solid Republican just yet.
At the same time, McConnell still has work to do, and if the Democrats’ plan starts to work, the race rating will change accordingly. Remember, defeating McConnell is a luxury for Democrats. They’ve got a dozen better takeover opportunities and don’t need to win Kentucky to take control of the Senate. But you can bet they’ll take their opportunity to knock out one of their worst enemies if they can.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.