Late-night comics sometimes compare his face to a turtle. Since there is a plausible resemblance, calling Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell "Turtle Face" is not too much of a stretch. So is the possibility that the US Senate could be McConnell-less after the 2014 elections.
The 71-year-old, Alabama-born McConnell has been representing the Bluegrass State since 1985, despite the fact that voters have never really ranked him very high in approval ratings. However, this year may be McConnell’s worst yet. According to a Dec. 17 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, the Senate minority leader is coming into a crucial election year with an anemic 31 percent favorability rating.
But poll numbers are only part of McConnell’s problems. Tea party primary challenger Matt Bevins and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes threaten the old establishment Republican on two fronts.
Bevins, a wealthy business person who has never held public office, is Kentucky’s version of Ted Cruz; radical-right and crazy enough to not care who likes it. With enough money and the right advertising, Bevins could unseat the reigning king of compromise.
Lundergan Grimes, on the other hand, is the alternative to everything voters dislike about the paralyzing dysfunction the Republican civil war has brought to Washington. As the incumbent Kentucky secretary of state, Lundergan Grimes has the advantage of local name recognition, yet can avoid carrying Beltway insider baggage.
In a post-Citizens United world, the flow of money can’t be ignored either. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “DreamWorks Animation chief and Democratic super donor Jeffrey Katzenberg and his political strategist Andy Spahn are spending at least part of the holiday season working their bottomless Rolodexes to pull together another fundraiser aimed at defeating the Senate Republicans’ minority leader, Mitch McConnell.”
It all spells trouble for McConnell in 2014.
Whether McConnell faces Lundergan Grimes or is ousted in the primary by Bevins, Kentucky Senate is the race to watch in 2014.
While not traditionally a bellwether, Kentucky could be a preview of the power-play that will drive the 2016 presidential race on the Republican side. A Bevins primary win could stretch tea party muscle all the way to a Ted Cruz presidential nomination. While that might not prove to be a winning formula, especially against, say, Hillary Clinton, it would be an unmistakable sign that the party of no compromise is here to stay, at least for a while.
If McConnell beats Bevins and is then defeated by Lundergan Grimes, the threat of a radical right primary challenge as fuel for gridlock is over.
The most likely scenario is a McConnell-Lundergan Grimes matchup, which could also be the most dangerous for McConnell. The race has been a virtual tie for most of this year and all that may be needed to tip it into Lundergan Grimes’ lap is another disastrous anti-Obama overreach, like the 2013 government shutdown that sent Republican poll numbers plunging.
Still, it remains possible that for the first time in 28 years, the US Senate might not include Mitch McConnell. The upset could send shockwaves through the Republican civil war, and leave late-night comics without a sitting senator they can call Turtle Face.
Author’s note: The opinions and commentary included in this report are based on the author’s independent analysis of official documents and public information.
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