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December 19, 2012

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Facts, rumors and political innuendo: Senate race 2014 edition

Just five days after being mocked by his Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor for filibustering his own bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell faced an even greater indignity last Thursday: a new poll from Public Policy Polling showing his approval rating in Kentucky as the lowest of any senator in the country.

In addition to his 37 percent approval rating (and 55 percent disapproval), a host of hypothetical 2014 Democratic challengers polled within single-digits of McConnell, including actress Ashley Judd, who trailed by just 4 percent.

Though McConnell’s re-election campaign has so far consisted of blustering about his invincibility and threats to assassinate the character of anyone — Republican or Democrat — who dares to challenge him, their unhinged response to the poll reflected anything but confidence.

Not only did his campaign attack Public Policy Polling as a hack partisan firm whose numbers could never be trusted, but campaign manager Jesse Benton sent out an email to supporters strongly suggesting that Democrats — including President Obama — directed PPP to release fake poll numbers to make McConnell look bad.

The reason no one took such criticism seriously is that PPP arguably performed better than any other polling firm in the previous month’s elections, correctly predicting every single presidential battleground state and Senate race where they polled.

Whereas a truly invincible candidate would have shrugged off a negative poll for a race two years in the future, McConnell’s gnashing off teeth and conspiratorial theories only managed to underline the fact that despite his huge campaign war chest, he is indeed quite vulnerable to defeat and scared to death that others — particularly formidable Democratic candidates who have so far been reluctant to declare themselves as challengers — are on to this fact.

But who will be the Democratic challenger? At present, most prominent hypothetical Democratic candidates have taken their name out of the running, with only a few refusing to rule it out, such as Judd, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, former ambassador Matthew Barzun, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

The 2014 Senate race is still far off, but decisions have to be made early next year in order to get enough of a fundraising head start to compete with McConnell’s $10 million war chest. Such decisions are clouded by the fact that the pool of potential candidates must also weigh whether or not to run for other offices in 2014 and 2015.

PPP found that Judd — whose rumors of a potential run have saturated the national media — was the lead choice of Democrats to take on McConnell in 2014, with a high name recognition and favorability rating.

Backers of a Judd candidacy — such as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth — point to her inherent popularity and presumed ability to raise enough money to compete with McConnell. Another argument in her favor is the possibility that all of the Democratic candidates who would fare the best against McConnell will punt, potentially leaving Democrats with a weak and underfunded candidate with no chance to compete.

Both Gov. Steve Beshear and former state auditor Crit Luallen — either of whom would move the Senate race into a toss up — have ruled out a run, and the chance of all big-name Democrats sitting this difficult race out with an eye on future races is not out of the question.

While many Kentucky insiders remain skeptical of Judd’s viability as a candidate — pointing to her current Tennessee residence and liberal position on mountaintop removal mining — PPP’s numbers suggest that Alison Lundergan Grimes would be a formidable challenger to McConnell.

While Grimes isn’t well known among voters — with 56 percent having no opinion of her — the poll found she has the highest net favorability rating among the potential challengers, and even positive favorables among Republicans.

Considering the skill she showed as a campaigner last year, her father Jerry Lundergan’s contacts across the state, her family’s connections to the Clintons, and her lack of a legislative record for McConnell to attack, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that McConnell’s campaign is already sending veiled barbs and threats toward Grimes to the national press.

However, Grimes has many options. She is said to also be considering a run for governor or attorney general in 2015, or perhaps a Senate run in 2016. While Grimes’ only statement about a potential run against McConnell is that she is honored to be discussed as a possibility, Frankfort insiders tell LEO she is seriously considering such a run.

Mayor Fischer, who polled within 5 percent of McConnell despite being largely unknown outside of Jefferson County, hasn’t completely ruled out a run, either. Last Thursday, Fischer danced around questions asking if he would run for re-election in 2014 or if he is considering a Senate bid, saying he is happy with his job.

When asked by LEO what he thought of McConnell’s performance, Fischer declined to take any swipes at him. WFPL’s Phillip Bailey followed up by asking if he plans on voting for McConnell, to which Fischer grinned and replied, “Nice shirt.” We’ll go ahead and mark him down as a “no.”

While the available bench of Democratic challengers that haven’t ruled out a run is limited, one also might wonder if the poll numbers from PPP changes that. Beshear said that last year’s race was his last, but can he resist the urge to change his mind and exact revenge on the man who stomped him in the 1996 Senate race? Crit Luallen, Jerry Abramson, Jack Conway and Adam Edelen are all eyeing the governor’s mansion in 2015, but could that potentially crowded field, and Mitch’s vulnerability, change their mind? Could House Speaker Greg Stumbo — who flirted with a run against McConnell in 2008 — suddenly throw his hat into the ring?

Expect this speculation to accelerate in January and February. But if summer rolls around and speculation is all Democrats are left with — and no candidate — McConnell’s campaign will be considerably mellower.

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