The 2014 Senate elections are likely to keep Democrats on the defensive. During the Democratic wave of 2008, the party won or held several seats in traditionally red states such as Alaska, South Dakota and North Carolina. Given the high number of Democratic seats up in 2014 (20 to the Republicans’ 13) and the conservative lean of many of the states holding elections, Republicans will be aggressively pursuing opportunities to pick up seats, leaving Democrats to play a defensive game to protect their incumbents.
But there is one state where the Democrats may go on the offense: Kentucky. While we traditionally think of Kentucky as a “red” state (it was one of the first states CNN called for Romney in the 2012 Presidential election), that is not entirely accurate. Kentucky has a Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, who was first elected in 2007. Moreover, 57 percent of registered voters in Kentucky are Democrats. While this has generally not translated into winning numbers for the party, Democrats remain optimistic. The incumbent Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell, is one of the most unpopular members of Congress, with a 37 percent approval rating.
There’s one more reason Democrats are so interested in the Kentucky Senate seat: McConnell is also the Senate Minority Leader, the top Republican in the Senate. Unseating him would be a major symbolic victory for a party that has found McConnell a formidable adversary. Not to mention, a McConnell defeat would leave Senate Republicans without a leader.
Party leaders in the Senate are the 007s of politics: endowed with great power and a short life expectancy. Recent Senate Minority Leaders such as Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) resigned or lost re-election shortly after being elevated to their post. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), beleaguered with a 39 percent approval rating, narrowly limped to reelection over Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle.
There are myriad reasons for McConnell’s unpopularity in his home state. His frequent use of the filibuster (at one point, he even filibustered a bill he himself brought to the floor for vote) have earned him few friends, and many see him as an obstacle to progress emblematic of a dysfunctional legislature. His ratings also dipped after becoming Minority Leader, which makes sense — every minute he spends leading the Republican Party in the Senate is a minute he cannot spend advancing issues important to Kentuckians. Harry Reid experienced the same sort of plummet in approval ratings after his elevation to party leader in 2004.
Additionally, McConnell finds himself at the helm of a divided party, acting as a leader who cannot effectively represent all philosophical factions. Kentucky itself is a microcosm of the clash between Republican Establishment and Tea Party. One of their Senators is Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader, the other is Rand Paul (R), a fast-rising Tea Party favorite for the 2016 Presidential election.
Indeed, the most dangerous threat to McConnell’s reelection may be a primary challenge from the right. Conservative insurgents have unseated many Republican giants in recent years, among them Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Bob Bennett (Utah). McConnell may be the next target for the Tea Party movement. While he is not generally considered a moderate, many on the right have seen McConnell as too conciliatory to the Democratic Senate leadership on certain issues, particularly tax increases. Rand Paul, on the other hand, was one of only eight members of the Senate to vote against the “fiscal cliff” resolution package McConnell and Reid put together, which increased taxes on individuals and small businesses earning over $400,000 annually.
The most prominent potential challenger to McConnell in the primary is John T. Kemper, a Tea Party leader in Kentucky. “We are working on a battle plan, with the ultimate goal to retire [McConnell] next year,” said Kemper, who then hinted at the possibility of running himself. Still, McConnell would start the race with several advantages, strong name recognition and $7 million in campaign funds among them. Additionally, he also has the endorsement of Rand Paul, a god among Tea Party followers.
Still, McConnell may go the road of other fallen Republicans such as Bennett and Lugar; such an event would give Democrats their pickup opportunity in Kentucky. McConnell’s established profile and organization would give him a leg up in the general election, but a more unknown Republican candidate might level the playing field, to Democrats’ advantage. Moreover, midterm elections are generally more hospitable to candidates running in states unfriendly to their party.
But in order to mount a successful challenge, the Democrats need a strong candidate. The most obvious choice, Governor Steve Beshear, has already declined to run in what promises to be a bruising contest. Other prominent Democrats such as Jack Conway, Paul’s opponent in the 2010 Senate election, and Ben Chandler, a former U.S. Representative, have also pulled their hats out of the ring.
However, the media in Kentucky and beyond has been abuzz about a highly unique potential candidate for the Democrats: actress Ashley Judd. The star of “Ruby in Paradise” and “Double Jeopardy” became active in politics during the 2008 election, when she campaigned for then-Senator Barack Obama and attacked Governor Sarah Palin for her environmental record. Since then she has publicly fought to further humanitarian and environmental causes, particularly in Africa. Though she has never held elected office, she served as a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
On paper, Judd looks like an ideal candidate to challenge McConnell (or another Republican if McConnell does not win the primary). She has the ability to match McConnell’s advantages — name recognition, fundraising capacity and organization — as well as the likely backing of national progressive movements. However, Judd would be unlikely to win a statewide battle in Kentucky. The reason lies in the state’s geography.
In 2012, Barack Obama won only four counties in Kentucky, three of which contained the cities of Louisville, Lexington, and Frankfort. Democrats do well in these urban centers, but the margins they pull are far from big enough to put them within striking distance of a statewide victory. In 2010, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Jack Conway, was able to expand his appeal and win counties in Kentucky’s two coal fields. While his margins were not big enough to defeat Rand Paul, the 2010 election highlighted the part of Kentucky Democrats need to win: coal country.
Coal is a huge industry in Kentucky. The two coal fields combined produce 4 percent of all energy consumed nationwide. Democrats can do well in coal country. West Virginia’s two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, for instance, come from the second-largest producer of coal in the nation. Their electoral victories in a Republican-leaning state are due in no small part to their support for the coal industry and other energy-producing sectors. Manchin supports the Keystone XL Pipeline, which a majority of Senate Democrats oppose.
The reality, however, is that Ashley Judd would not appeal to voters from coal-producing parts of Kentucky. While she has not yet made official statements on contentious energy issues such as the Keystone Pipeline and emissions standards, her strong environmentalist tradition is likely to push swing voters in coal country towards the Republican candidate. The Democratic party has many factions, and Kentucky Democrats are not ready for Judd’s brand of progressivism.
In 2014, Mitch McConnell will see a primary challenge from the right, which he may or may not survive. Should he win, he will probably triumph over his Democratic opponent, but it will be a hard-fought election. Judd, with her name recognition and progressive base in cities such as Lexington and Louisville, may become the Democratic candidate for Senate, but her chances of becoming Kentucky’s next Senator are low.
Still, the right set of circumstances could allow a Democrat to take the seat in the next election. With Republican pickups in West Virginia and Alaska (among other places) growing more likely, Democrats will be looking for a battle they can win. But as with any state-level race, victory involves making an appeal to the voters in Kentucky.