Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, staked out his position on the impact of impeachment when he tweeted in early December, “Nancy Pelosi is marching members of her caucus off the plank and into the abyss,” adding, “Impeachment is killing her freshman members and polling proves it.”
The alleged nervousness of some Democrats in swing districts and New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s switch to the GOP have added to the sense of risk that Democrats are facing by impeaching the president.
Like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I initially thought that impeaching Trump was an unnecessarily risky step for congressional Democrats.
Trump has always been the issue for many Americans who find his personal behavior and/or his policies offensive, so why complicate the narrative by adding a step that puts the onus back on Democratic lawmakers?
But Trump’s behavior involving Ukraine forced Pelosi’s hand. With her members up in arms and the party’s grassroots demanding action after new detailed evidence of wrongdoing, the speaker had few options other than to greenlight the impeachment process in the House.
Given Republicans’ lockstep position, Democrats are stuck with a partisan impeachment that has no chance of a Senate conviction next year.
The question is whether Trump’s impeachment and subsequent vote in the Senate not to convict changes the political calculus for 2020, for both the presidential election and the fight for control of Congress.
Politicians have a right to be worried about the political unknown, since they won’t know how voters feel about their individual members until after the impeachment process finally ends. But there is plenty of evidence that the polarization we already see in national polling on the president’s job performance and on impeachment as an alternative suggest that most minds already are made up.
The Dec. 8-11 Fox News poll showed 50 percent of registered voters said Trump should be impeached and removed, while only 41 percent said he should not be impeached. In late October, an almost identical 49 percent said he should be impeached and removed.
The new Fox News poll also showed Trump’s job approval stood at 45 percent, with 53 percent disapproving — little different from his 43 percent approve/54 percent disapprove in late January.
Yes, we all know that Trump says his polling is great, but we also all know that he simply makes up stuff, including poll numbers. So he isn’t a credible source.
I don’t see much reason to believe that impeachment has enhanced his chances for reelection in 2020. Nor is there much evidence that the process has undermined his prospects.
That puts me in complete agreement with my friend Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, who observed that “by the time we hit the summer of 2020, the issue of impeachment will just be one more in a string of unprecedented, presidency-altering events that have come and gone in the mind of voters.”
Some Democratic incumbents in pro-Trump and Republican states and districts will lose their seats next year, but they probably would have lost them even if their party had not pursued impeachment. But many Democrats in swing seats who were first elected in 2018 because of voters’ animosity toward Trump should not find themselves in difficulty next year primarily because they supported impeachment.
The disruption and chaos that Trump brought to the presidency, and to our politics, has resulted in more anger and name-calling, additional partisan polarization and a growing sense that the 2020 election will be crucial to the country’s future, no matter which side you are on. But it also means that the battle lines for 2020 have already been formed, and both sides have more than enough ammunition.
If Trump’s comment about grabbing a women’s private parts didn’t sink his 2016 campaign and his awful general election debate performances didn’t sink his candidacy, there is almost nothing that he could do over the next 11 months that would automatically destroy him or his party next year.
Conversely, if a strong economy, including a stunningly low unemployment rate and a booming stock market, isn’t enough to get the president’s job approval up to 50 percent, nothing will.
Critics of the president already have enough reason to find him “deplorable” and vote to replace him in November.
Now, in the middle of the impeachment process, impeachment looks like a defining event of 2020. But by the time we reach September, impeachment will likely look like a mere bump in the road.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 17, 2019.
Like other handicappers, I have noted that there are few signs that the national political divide, so apparent over the last three years, has started to crumble.
Trump voters are sticking with the president, while those who opposed him in 2016 generally have become even more vociferous in their opposition.
Given the closeness of the last presidential contest — and subsequent big Democratic gains in the House two years later — it’s hard to see 2020 producing a House wave for either party.
After all, only three House Republicans sit in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and most of the seats that flipped to the Democrats last year are in the suburbs, where Trump and the GOP are having serious problems.
In other words, there are few “easy” opportunities in the House for either party. But while electoral “waves” almost always refer to large changes in the House, the term can also apply to Senate and presidential outcomes where there are dramatic shifts.
In fact, the extreme partisanship we see, especially combined with the way our House districts are now drawn, limit the number of seats in the chamber that can conceivably flip, even in a partisan wave.
At some point, a competitive Senate seat becomes more likely to flip than an uncompetitive House race. We may be at that tipping point in this cycle.
How a wave begins
Electoral waves generally happen under at least one of two circumstances.
They occur when turnout in one party drops precipitously, producing an electorate that dramatically favors the other party. Or, they can occur when swing voters, who normally divide evenly between the two parties, swing dramatically to one side, thereby producing an electorate that once again disproportionately favors one party over the other.
In 2004, for example, self-identified independents in the national exit poll split evenly, 49 percent for John Kerry and 48 percent for George W. Bush.
Bush won the presidential election narrowly at the same time the GOP gained a modest three seats in the House. But two years later, in a wave election during Bush’s second midterm, the national exit poll showed self-identified independents breaking to the Democrats, 57 percent to 39 percent.
Democrats gained 31 House seats that year. Four years later, during Barack Obama’s first midterm election, which produced a GOP electoral wave, the national exit poll showed independents breaking toward Republicans, 56 percent to 39 percent.
When both partisan turnout and independent/swing voter preferences change at the same time (and in the same direction, of course), we tend to see larger electoral waves, as we did in 2010, when Republicans made large House (63 seats) and Senate (6 seats) gains.
Large gains are also possible (even likely) when the party on the defensive holds an abnormally large number of House and/or Senate seats that traditionally favor the other party.
What the polls say
While the 2020 election is still more than a year off, Republicans ought to be concerned about some early signs, both at the national and state levels.
Trump carried self-described independents in 2016, 46 percent to 42 percent, according to that year’s national exit polls, but the GOP lost them, 54 percent to 42 percent, two years later in the midterms.
Even more concerning, the Oct. 6-8 Fox News poll found the president’s approval among independents at 36 percent, with 61 percent disapproving of his performance.
In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points and where Trump’s campaign is likely to make a major effort, an Oct. 14-16 Star Tribune poll found the president losing to the three top Democrats anywhere from 9 points to 12 points in hypothetical ballot tests.
In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a point, an Oct. 13-17 Marquette Law School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading him by 6 points, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was up by 2 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led by a single point.
A Fox News poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Wisconsin found Biden leading by 9 points, Sanders by 5 and Warren by 4.
In Florida, an Oct. 14-20 University of North Florida poll found Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent against four top Democratic contenders.
He trailed Biden by 5 points and Warren by 3. Trump won 49 percent of the vote in Florida in 2016, carrying the state by only 1.2 points.
In Iowa, an Oct. 13-16 Emerson College poll showed Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren in a state that he carried by 9 points, a serious problem for the president’s team if — and it is a big “if — the Emerson results reflect the actual strength of the candidates in hypothetical ballot tests.
It’s certainly possible that these national and state polls are misleading or flat-out wrong. Circumstances could change, either helping or hurting Trump, and both parties’ prospects won’t become clearer until the Democrats actually have a nominee.
But it’s equally unwise to be wedded to an assumption — e.g., we are headed for another squeaker in 2020 because the Trump and anti-Trump coalitions are largely immovable — that may ignore the possibility that modest defections from Trump combined with a significant change in the behavior of independents/swing voters (including suburban whites with a college degree) could produce substantial changes in the 2020 presidential vote and surprisingly substantial Democratic gains in the Senate.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 29, 2019.
Increased concern about the likelihood of an economic slowdown, new questions about President Donald Trump’s standing with voters, and a special election in Georgia certainly give Democrats some reason for optimism about next year’s fight for the Senate.
But while the Senate map surely is better for Democrats in 2020 than it was last cycle, the party will need an upset or two to win control of the chamber next November.
The national dynamic looks to be a problem for the president’s party. An Aug. 11-13 Fox News poll had Trump’s job rating at 43 percent approve/56 percent disapprove. The Democratic Party had a net favorable of 6 points (51 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable), while the GOP had a net unfavorable of 13 points (41 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable.
Trump’s personal rating was 42 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable, while former President Barack Obama’s personal rating was a much stronger 60 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable.
These are national ratings, of course, but they could well reflect similar changes in crucial states with competitive Senate races next year.
In fact, a series of state polls conducted online for Morning Consult showed the president’s job approval in July well below his vote in the 2016 election in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa and even Ohio.
Colorado remains the biggest headache for the GOP, even though incumbent Cory Gardner is a skilled campaigner who continues to position himself as an “independent.”
That message worked with Obama in the White House, but it’s a much harder sell after four years of Trump.
Like his Republican Senate colleagues, Gardner has not been very critical of Trump in a state that looks increasingly blue.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s entry into the race adds to Gardner’s problems, though Democrats were already pretty well positioned before Hickenlooper switched contests.
If the 2020 elections are mostly “about Trump,” as I expect, Gardner faces an uphill battle in his bid for a second term.
Mark Kelly’s entry into the Arizona race was good news for Democrats, who are trying to defeat Republican Martha McSally for the second election in a row.
McSally’s narrow loss to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018 demonstrated both the Republican’s assets and liabilities in a state that appears to be inching toward the Democrats.
Trump carried the state by about 3.5 points in 2016, but the state’s sprawling suburban areas and minority voters are obvious targets for the Democrats next year.
Kelly needs to demonstrate that he has the focus and campaign skills to keep up with McSally, who is adept at earning positive media coverage. If he does that, the race has all the markings of a toss-up.
Democrats are notably upbeat about their prospects in North Carolina, where freshman Republican Thom Tillis is seeking a second term.
Trump carried the state by just over 3.5 points, while Tillis won his 2014 race by 2 points during Obama’s second midterm election.
Democrats face a competitive primary between state Sen. Erica Smith, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham. Cunningham, who is white, is the early favorite for the Democratic nomination. Both Smith and Fuller are black.
For Democrats, the key to the race probably boils down to turnout of black and younger voters, as well as whether Cunningham (assuming he is his party’s nominee) can make gains among suburban white voters turned off by Trump’s agenda and personal style.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales now rates the race Tilts Republican.
But even if Democrats sweep Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina, they are likely to need a fourth seat, since the party is unlikely to hold Doug Jones’s Alabama seat. They will also need to hold their three potentially vulnerable seats (in Michigan, New Hampshire and Minnesota) and win the White House to control the Senate.
Maine is an obvious Democratic target. Hillary Clinton carried the state in 2016, and Republican incumbent Susan Collins’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court rattled abortion rights supporters who have backed her in the past.
But even veteran Democratic strategists acknowledge Collins has built up plenty of goodwill in the relatively small state, where personal relationships matter.
Still, the likely Democratic nominee, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, is a credible challenger.
Democrats talk about making Texas and Iowa into competitive races, and that could happen if Trump’s standing drops further in either or both states.
But savvy Democrats believe that Georgia may well be the surprise state of the cycle. They note they almost won the governorship last year, and Trump carried the state by just over 5 points in 2016.
The state continues to change, as suburban voters grow uncomfortable with Trump. Freshman GOP Sen. David Perdue’s seat is up next year, but the state will also have a special election following veteran Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s resignation for health reasons.
Those two seats give Democrats a surprising opportunity in the Peach State.
But while Democrats promise they will make a major effort to recruit quality candidates, they don’t yet have even one heavyweight who frightens state Republicans.
Of course, the likely runoff in the special election “jungle primary” (if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first election) could create specific circumstances that could benefit one party or the other.
The Senate landscape hasn’t shifted dramatically, but the small change benefits Democrats. They currently have about a 4-in-10 chance to net at least three seats and win the presidency.
Growing Democratic strength and Trump’s weakness in the suburbs, combined with stronger Democratic turnout (compared to 2016) and some Trump fatigue even among Republicans should make the fight for Senate control in 2020 increasingly interesting.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on September 4, 2019.
For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.
An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.
Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.
Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.
Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.
In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, combined for 99 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.
Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.
Breaking down the votes
Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.
The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.
The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.
But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.
Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.
While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.
The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.
Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).
Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.
Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.
At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.
Elsewhere, the same thing happened.
In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.
In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.
Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.
But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.
Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.
In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.
Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.
On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.
What it means for 2020
In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.
That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.
On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.
Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.
But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.
While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.
She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.
And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.
If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.
“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.
That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.
Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.
“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.
But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.
And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.
If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.
Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.
With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.
As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.
This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.
Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.
But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.
That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.
Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.
All about the nominee
Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.
The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.
But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?
Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.
The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.
But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.
By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.
That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.
Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
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.
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.