To many people, a poll released today by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling probably came as a surprise. Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, is shown trailing his challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, by a point. But he's a Republican in a conservative state, and one of the leaders of his party. How could he be in danger of losing?
For starters, Grimes looks to be a serious opponent. Her father is a well-known former state senator, she's already won a statewide campaign, and she's made some terrific videos with her grandmothers, tapping into Kentucky's substantial pro-grandma vote. But that's not the real source of McConnell's problems. While one might think that the more important and influential a senator is in national politics the easier time he'd have winning re-election, the opposite is true, especially at a time like this.
Almost 40 years ago, political scientist Richard Fenno identified a curious phenomenon among voters: they hate Congress, but love their congressman. Congress is seen as corrupt, incompetent, venal, beset by infighting among competing interests each driven by its own bad faith. But Congressman Smith? Why, he's our boy! He went to the same high school as my cousin. I saw him at the Fourth of July parade. He helped my buddy's grandma get her Social Security check. He got money for the new bridge over the river. That's a big reason why even when Congress is incredibly unpopular, almost all incumbents-over 95 percent in some years-get re-elected.
And it isn't just the personal connections that drive this phenomenon, it's also the media. A friend of mine wrote his dissertation on the way members of Congress are covered in local media, and what he found is that unless you get embroiled in a scandal, the coverage is almost all positive. The local papers and TV stations will run your picture when you cut the ribbon at the senior center you obtained funding for, or seek out your sage words on whatever the issue of the day is, but they rarely write anything critical about you.
But if you're Mitch McConnell, you don't get the benefit of that glowing coverage, because you're in the news all the time for your role in national issues. The people of Kentucky don't get a different view of McConnell than people anywhere else, and what they see is a guy who, pretty much by his own admission, is one of the prime forces creating and sustaining congressional gridlock and all other manner of Washington dysfunction. Other voters might have the liberty to hate Congress but love their senator, but Mitch McConnell is Congress.
The truth is that McConnell has never been hugely popular in Kentucky. He's not a particularly lovable guy, even though he is one of the shrewdest and most ruthless politicians you'll ever encounter. I'd hesitate to bet against him. But don't be surprised if he ends up losing next year.