Kentucky Senate: Seriously, Are We Doing This Again?

I understand Democrats’ frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as their desire to send him into retirement in the 2020 elections. But once again Democrats have gotten ahead of themselves in their optimism that they can defeat the Kentucky Republican.

Six years ago, Democrats and many in the national media gushed about the prospects of Alison Lundergan Grimes against McConnell. Grimes was young, articulate and personable, and she was the state’s sitting secretary of state.

Plus, her family had a boatload of money and more national political connections than you could count.

We heard repeatedly how old and unliked McConnell was. He had been in Congress for decades and represented gridlock and the past. Voters wanted change and fresh ideas, just what Grimes said she was offering.

“McConnell continues to have an abysmal job approval rating with 54% disapproving and just 36% approving of his performance,” wrote Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, in an April 9, 2013, memo entitled “Democrats within striking distance of Mitch McConnell for 2014.”

But I never bought the hype, and McConnell ended up clobbering Grimes 56 percent to 41 percent, a reflection of the state’s partisan bent and his campaign defining Grimes as a liberal. Grimes carried only 10 of the state’s 120 counties.

Another year, same story

Amy McGrath is this year’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. A graduate of the Naval Academy and a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, McGrath was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marines.

Clearly, she has an interesting story, and she also has one congressional race under her belt and success as a political fundraiser. (Her haul of $2.5 million for her initial day of fundraising was remarkable.)

McGrath has plenty of assets, but she has the same liabilities as Grimes — maybe even more.

Her biggest problem is Kentucky’s demographics and political fundamentals, both of which make it difficult for a Democrat to win a statewide federal election.

McGrath won a competitive Democratic primary last year in the Lexington-based 6th District for the right to take on three-term Republican incumbent Andy Barr.

She raised about $8.6 million, and many observers expected her to win if Democrats had anything approaching a good year nationally.

But Barr carried 17 of the district’s 19 counties, defeating McGrath 51 percent to 48 percent at the same time that Democrats were netting 40 seats nationwide.

How did Barr survive? He and his GOP allies used McGrath’s own words to paint her as a liberal, including her comment at a Massachusetts fundraiser that she is “further left … than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”

McGrath’s decision to turn around and run against McConnell seems odd (considering the real possibility of consecutive defeats), though it is easy to understand why state and national Democrats would want her to run.

The state is even more Republican than the 6th District, so McGrath starts off with a more challenging electorate.

Democrats hold just one of the state’s six districts, while the other five voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.

Barr’s district was the most competitive of the bunch, since Trump received “only” 55 percent of the vote here.

In the other four GOP districts, he drew 80 percent, 72 percent, 67 percent and 65 percent.

McGrath should win the Democrat-held 3rd District, centered in Louisville, and she should be competitive in the 6th. But her prospects elsewhere in the state, initially at least, appear bleak.

What’s changed

How could the fundamentals be worse for McGrath than they were for Grimes, especially since Democrats have a chance of winning the state’s gubernatorial election in less than four months?

For one, Grimes’s loss occurred in 2014, a full two years before Trump won the presidency. Since then, national politics has become even more polarized and partisan.

That increased partisanship makes it more difficult for Democratic candidates to win statewide federal elections in Kentucky, Trump’s fifth strongest state, behind West Virginia, Wyoming, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

McGrath will need a large number of Trump voters in a state he won by almost 30 points. That is a heavy burden even if McConnell is not personally popular and Democrats have a politically appealing challenger.

McConnell will have plenty of opportunities to make the Senate race about both Trump and McGrath, and indeed, the overwhelming national Democratic response to McGrath’s candidacy gives Kentucky Republicans another weapon to brand the challenger as a liberal, a Trump critic and a favorite of the coastal elites in California and New York. Her comments on Wednesday about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, saying in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal she “probably” would have voted to confirm him, then reversing herself a little later, only add fuel to the GOP line of attack.

As for the 2019 gubernatorial race, it will tell us little about a federal contest, where party and ideology are more important.

McGrath has received a Beto O’Rourke-like reception from Democrats across the country who rightfully see McConnell as a poster child for hypocrisy and partisan abuses in government.

But Kentucky’s fundamentals are actually worse than Texas’ for Democrats. (And remember: O’Rourke lost his statewide race there to the unpopular Sen. Ted Cruz.)

Non-Hispanic whites made up 85 percent of the Kentucky population in 2017, according to Governing, and by most measures the state ranks near the bottom on education.

It is not the kind of electorate that seems poised to embrace an anti-Trump Democrat.

Democrats would almost certainly be better off to focus on their top four Senate prospects — Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine, as well as longer shots in Iowa, Texas and Georgia — than sink resources into Kentucky.

As I wrote about Grimes in July 2013, the burden is on McGrath to prove she can overcome the state’s fundamentals. At this point, I’m skeptical her prospects are much better than Grimes’ were.

Note: A earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

What We Can Learn from the 2004 Presidential Race

Beware of reading too much into presidential polls. Take, for example, the 2004 race.

An August 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey found Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, leading the party’s presidential field with 23 percent. He was trailed by former House Majority (and Minority) Leader Richard A. Gephardt (13 percent), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (12 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry(10 percent).

A month later, another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found the newest entry into the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, topping the pack with 22 percent, while Dean (13 percent), Kerry (11 percent), Gephardt (11 percent) and Lieberman (10 percent) were bunched together.

There were others in the race, of course — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and activist Al Sharpton — but they barely registered in the polls.

By December, Dean had pulled ahead in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, opening up a considerable lead over Lieberman, 31 percent to 13 percent. Clark and Kerry drew 10 percent, and Gephardt received 8 percent.

(Multiple other polls, including those for CBS News, Newsweek, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed the same movement to Dean.)

A little more than a month later, on Jan. 19, Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 38 percent, while Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent. Dean and Gephardt finished much further behind.

Clark and Lieberman did not really compete in the caucuses, preferring to devote their time to New Hampshire.

The first CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey after the caucuses, conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, 2004, showed Kerry leading nationally with 49 percent to Dean’s 14 percent, Edwards’ 13 percent and Clark’s 9 percent. The race for the Democratic nomination was effectively over.

In a matter of weeks, Kerry went from a political basket case to the de facto Democratic nominee.

Edwards become his major opponent and eventually his running mate.

The early polls weren’t “wrong.” They just weren’t predictive of how things would develop.

16 years later

But 2020 is very different from 2004, isn’t it? In 2004, neither party had ever nominated a person of color or a woman to be president. The Democratic field then was large but nothing like the almost two dozen hopefuls this year.

The Democratic Party of 2004 was very different from the one we see today. And the political environment was very different then, given its proximity to 9/11.

One thing that is similar is the timing of the first debate. In 2003, Democrats held a debate on May 3, about six weeks earlier than this year’s June debates.

Nine Democrats — including one woman, Moseley-Braun, and two candidates of color, Moseley-Braun and Sharpton — participated in the debate, which was held at the University of South Carolina and broadcast on C-SPAN and 59 ABC affiliates. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News was the moderator.

The more things change …

So, what might 2004 teach us about 2020?

First, as Gallup’s Frank Newport noted shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, an early lead in national polling doesn’t guarantee anything.

Sure, some hopefuls (including George W. Bush and Al Gore in 1999-2000, and Donald Trump in 2015-16) have gone wire-to-wire, but most contests show surges and lead changes.

Throughout 2003, voters were doing just what they are doing this year: learning about the candidates, sampling them and sorting them into those they might support and those they won’t.

Polls from before the 2004 Iowa caucuses showed Kerry virtually eliminated from the race — until he wasn’t.

As Democratic pollster Diane Feldman told me more than a decade ago, it’s only weeks before the Iowa caucuses that caucus attendees start asking themselves which of the hopefuls could handle the office of president. That’s a different test from “Who do I like?’ or “Who do I agree with the most?”

Second, every day is “crucial” for cable TV hosts and political spinners, but not for campaigns and candidates.

Fundraising numbers are worth noting, as are news reports about controversies and polling. But all the hoopla — countdown clocks, Super Bowl-like pre-debate introductions, massive panels of experts dissecting every new public opinion survey — is mostly about drawing eyeballs, not educating viewers.

Third, Iowa can change everything.

The winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t automatically win the nomination, but the results invariably change perceptions about the front-runner and the entire field, creating new expectations and weeding out the also-rans.

“The [nomination] process is not a simultaneous process but a sequential one,” noted Feldman, whose clients have included the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Fourth, the Hawkeye State will be more uncertain than ever with the addition of a “virtual caucus” that allows Iowa Democrats to caucus up to six days before the Feb. 3 traditional in-person caucuses.

People undoubtedly are paying more attention to the current race than they did at this point in 2003-04, in part because Democrats are so focused on defeating Trump next year.

And Trump’s nomination and election may well have altered the way people look at the political process and campaigns.

But the coverage of the Democratic contest — including contradictory polling results and multiple media narratives — tells us less than you may think about the party’s eventual nominee.

Voters have plenty of time to evaluate the crowded field before Iowa and Nevada caucus-goers and New Hampshire and South Carolina primary voters make their choices and remake the field.

Note: This column appeared initially in the July 9, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

For the 2020 Democratic field, ‘electability’ doesn’t mean much — for now

Most discussions about “electability” boil down to what path Democrats need to take to win the White House.

Do they need a presidential nominee who mobilizes the base (including nonwhites, younger voters and those on the left) or one who attracts white, suburban swing voters and maybe even a 2016 Trump voter or two?

The ideal Democratic nominee — the candidate with the best chance of winning an election — would appeal to both groups, as Bill Clinton did. But what if no candidate shows that breadth of appeal? Or if more than one hopeful (following different paths) looks able, or even likely, to defeat President Donald Trump?

Defining ‘electable’

Many on the left take issue with the concept of “electability” at all. They argue that it’s just a rationale for supporting old, white men.

As a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List told Vox, “Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to.”

There is a kernel of truth to that, but it’s mostly poppycock.

The Democratic field has both men and women who are likable (California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden) and unlikable (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren).

The same goes for electability. Candidates have different assets and liabilities, though it certainly is true that observers sometimes err in evaluating the importance of both (as we did with Trump in 2016).

Each Democrat will have his or her own reasons for thinking this hopeful or that one is most “electable.”

Some of those reasons will constitute wishful thinking, while others will merely confirm preferences.

Undoubtedly, some calculations will be based on the candidates’ race or gender, or on their age or ideological positioning.

Over the long haul, survey data will establish a pecking order in the Democratic contest that will separate the wheat from the chaff, the electables from the unlikelies. And that’s when we will know the most electable hopeful — or, more likely, the handful of hopefuls with the best chance of winning next November.

Who is the most electable Democratic hopeful right now? It’s Biden, obviously.

He performs best in head-to-head ballot tests against the president, both nationally and in key states, and he has potentially broad appeal.

But Biden may not look like the strongest Democratic challenger to Trump three weeks from now, three months from now or next March. The campaign will affect the public’s perception of his appeal.

Crowded at the top

The early polls raise a more interesting and complicated issue. What happens if multiple Democratic hopefuls lead Trump in head-to-head matchups? What if three or four or five Democrats look “electable?”

In most polls, Biden does better against Trump than do other Democratic hopefuls.

But Sanders also bests the president in most national and key state polls, and other Democrats are running even or slightly ahead of Trump.Top of Form

In the June 9-12 Fox News poll of registered voters, Biden led Trump by 10 points, Sanders did so by 9 points, Warren by 2 points, and Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 1 point .

A June 6-10 Quinnipiac poll found Biden leading Trump by 13 points, Sanders up by 9, Harris by 8, Warren by 7 and Buttigieg by 5.

In Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found both Biden and Sanders leading Trump by 12 points, with Buttigieg, Warren and Harris holding leads in the low- to mid-single digits.

Biden’s electability argument weakens noticeably if he and at least one other Democrat look roughly equally strong against the president.

Does it really matter to Democrats that Biden beats Trump by 10 points but Sanders beats Trump by “only” 8 or 9 points? Probably not.

Deciding factor

Ultimately, the question of electability will likely come down to how people see the Biden path to election and the Sanders/Warren/Harris path.

Do they believe that the most progressive voters in the Democratic coalition would stay home if Biden, one of the more pragmatic liberals in the 2020 field, is nominated?

Would those voters risk the re-election of Trump because Biden isn’t progressive enough? That seems unlikely.

Or, do they believe that working-class whites will stick with the president and moderate, suburban female voters will return to Trump (or at least stay home) if their only alternative is someone like Sanders or Warren, two progressive ideologues?

Traditionally, nominees move to the middle during a general election because that’s where most of the persuadable voters are.

In spite of all the recent focus (since 2000) on “the base,” swing voters still determine who wins most competitive elections. That’s why Biden seems more electable now, and his path to the White House appears easier than Sanders’ or Warren’s.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 25, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

How Many Ways is Michigan In Play in 2020?

Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.

The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.

Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.

Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.

A turnaround?

Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.

Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.

But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.

In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan.

Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.

Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challengeto Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.

James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters.

For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.

Numbers tell the story

A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.

No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).

His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.

In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).

Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.

Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.

The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.

Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.

Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.

In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).

The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points.

The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.

2020 realities

Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.

James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.

Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.

Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.

James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.

Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 18, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

The 2020 Race: Still Tilting Democratic

There has been plenty of attention recently on economic models that show President Donald Trump holding a huge advantage in the 2020 presidential contest. But it’s not that simple.

Like alchemists hunting for the secret recipe that transmutes lead into gold, media personalities, political junkies and veteran analysts seem bewitched by the idea that they can divine the political future. I’m always skeptical of such claims.

I still remember the silliness of an Indiana University sociologist, who knew nothing about politics, arguing in The Washington Post and on television that Twitter could predict elections.

The latest version of this search for prophesy is Steven Rattner’s May 27 New York Times column about “models” that give the president a “formidable 2020 tailwind.”

An earlier Politico piece by Ben White and Steve Shepard teased, “How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide.”

No matter how many economists, political scientists or investment bankers are involved, predictive models based solely on economic data miss the point because they look at only one aspect of a presidency and only one facet of a presidential election. My column from Sept. 18 last year, “Why it’s NOT the Economy, Stupid,” sought to explain why the economy would not be decisive in the midterms and why it might well be less important than usual next year.

Models predicting a Trump wave strike me as more about clicks and being contrarian than about taking a dispassionate look at the 2020 election.

A second look

In my Jan. 3 column this year, I considered a number of factors — including the impact of the nominees, the economy, recent election results, issue salience, key voting groups and Trump’s performance in office — before calling the race a Toss-up that tilts toward the Democrats.

Now, I thought I’d take another look at where the 2020 race stands, acknowledging again that it’s still very early and the trajectory of the race is likely to change more than once before the Iowa caucuses, let alone Election Day.

In spite of all the Sturm und Drang about the Democratic contest and the media’s suffocating coverage of the 2020 race, not a lot has changed since the start of the year.

Democrats have a number of additions to their field, including the early front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, but the basic shape of their race is holding firm.

Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, and, surprisingly, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem to constitute the top tier, with many others hoping to break out during the first debates at the end of this month.

Trump, of course, remains unchanged. He is the same person he has been, and there is no reason to believe that he will change.

Key groups

Party coalition groups (on both sides) are essentially holding, and the recent controversy over abortion, which is almost certain to remain a significant national issue from now to next November, makes it difficult for Trump to expand his support or win back college-educated white women, the election’s crucial swing group.

Not all women favor abortion rights, but the legislative actions taken to restrict abortion in Missouri and Alabama surely elevate the issue and create greater risk for Republican candidates in many suburban areas.

The movement to the GOP of white men without a college degree and the realignment of college-educated voters to the Democrats remain significant stories for the next presidential contest.

Trump’s tough talk on tariffs and immigration resonates well with many of his most loyal supporters, but it clearly has caused some heartburn in rural America, where trade is so important.

Whether tariffs and trade cost Trump a state or two in next year’s elections is now unclear, but the risk surely is greater for the GOP than for Democrats.

From time to time, Trump talks about unemployment in the minority community or the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but his overall nationalist, populist message — and decisions taken by various government officials — invariably make it easy for Democrats to paint the administration as insensitive to the less fortunate, beholden to conservative evangelicals, overly protective of the wealthy, and generally uninterested in diversity and tolerance.

Polls generally show Trump’s job approval between 40 percent and 46 percent. At best, that puts him about where he was in 2016, and at worst it shows him at least a few points weaker than he was.

Equally troubling for Republicans, national polls and key state surveys have initially shown Trump trailing Biden and Sanders.

Another four years?

Questions about the Democratic field — and particularly about the party’s eventual nominee — remain unanswered.

Biden’s positioning as a pragmatic liberal is ideal. But it isn’t clear whether he will be his party’s nominee or whether the party will select a more progressive (and riskier) standard-bearer next year.

A strong economy surely gives Trump good talking points and a rationale for re-election, but a clear plurality of Americans (maybe even a majority) now believe the country cannot take another four years of him, no matter how low the employment rate falls.

They are concerned about his character, judgment, intelligence, integrity, churlishness and lack of empathy, as well as the chaos and controversy that follow him.

Dozens of important questions remain unanswered, but the 2020 contest still looks to be more of a referendum on the president than anything else. And because of that, and the polarization evident in the nation, a close race is likely.

Given Trump’s inability to broaden his appeal and the likelihood that Democrats will be more united and energized than they were in 2016, the Democratic ticket deserves to be given a narrow but clear advantage.

“Tilting Democratic” still seems a reasonable rating to me at this early stage of the race.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.