Seeing Less Blue in the Bluegrass State

       In the Bluegrass State, the big story is the ascendancy of Rand Paul in the Republican Party.  He was perhaps one of the first Senate candidates to be supported by the TEA Party to go up against a party establishment nominee in the primaries.  Backed by the national GOP, the state GOP apparatus and most importantly, Mitch McConnell, Trey Grayson, the state’s Secretary of State, was considered the prohibitive favorite entering the primary season.  Enter the TEA Party and their support of Rand Paul and the entire dynamic changed.  In the primary, the people of Kentucky sent a message loud and clear to the Republican establishment not only in the state, but nationally.  Unlike the upset of Bob Bennett in Utah, who didn’t even make it to the primary ballot because of their convention system, the Kentucky Republican primary was more of an exclamation point on the influence of the TEA Party.  In fact, neither the Libertarian nor the Constitution Party in Kentucky nominated anyone because of Paul’s candidacy.  One would expect, given his comments thus far, Rand Paul would vote with a libertarian slant like his father in the House.  During the primary against Grayson, his opponent was making many of the same attacks against Paul that his Democratic opponent is making now.  But in the end, the Republican primary was not even close as Paul won handily…thus the message from the Republicans of Kentucky to the national GOP.

     Not that his opponent, Jack Conway, had an easy time getting to this point.  His victory in the Democratic primary WAS very close.  Conway prevailed by about 4,000 votes over Dan Mangiardo.  The fact that Conway had to expend money in order to get here is good news on the financial front for Paul.  In fact, Paul established a record for single-day fundraising in Kentucky.  Today, they are about even in the fundraising department.  Regarding their political positions and how they apply to the citizens of Kentucky, the choices are fairly clear in many areas.  For example, while Paul opposes such concepts as stimulus, TARP, Obamacare and card check legislation, Conway is for those initiatives.  Perhaps the one major area where they agree is their stated opposition to cap-and-trade legislation which, should they support it, would be political suicide in a coal-producing state.

     There are a few signs of worry, I believe, for Republicans in Kentucky in this Senate race.  Some is self-inflicted and some is simple demographics.  Some statements by Paul have been taken out of context and Paul has learned a hard lesson- not to enter the “gotcha” journalism trap of the mainstream press.  For example, his comments about the legality of enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act on owners of private property is a philosophical point.  Although Paul said that he supports the Act and its provisions, he was simply revisiting a very real constitutional question that was debated in the Senate in 1964 during enactment of that legislation.  And incidentally, it was the leadership of the Democratic Party in 1964 in the Senate that brought up these questions.  Additionally, his comments about birthright citizenship and revisiting the 14th Amendment is yet another murky philosophical area that has brought criticism.  And finally, there were his comments about the BP oil spill.  Basically bad timing at a period when the American public was calling for the head of BP management!  Since the initial turmoil has died down and Paul has focused on issues facing the American public and the citizens of Kentucky, Paul’s standing in the polls has improved.  Additionally, in recent debates with Conway, while his opponent has tried to portray Paul as outside the mainstream and used his previous philosophical musings against him, Paul has stood his ground and focused on the issues.

      Unlike other states where Republican turn out for the primaries exceeded that of Democrats, in Kentucky some 521,000 Democrats turned out versus 352,000 Republicans.  Some would use this as a gauge for general election turn out and prognostication.  If that were the case, then Conway would have the advantage.  But, turn out was high on both sides because both party primaries were competitive and they were for an open seat.  However, this bucked a trend seen for open Republican seats elsewhere.  For example, in Missouri, Republican turnout exceeded that of Democrats, as was the case in Ohio and Florida.  However, as the polling indicates, this cannot really be used as a guideline because it eliminates independents and the consensus is that it is this voting bloc, angry with the Obama liberal agenda, that will decide the election.  And, in fact, Rand Paul has consistently led in head-to-head polling against Conway since March.  Although the 6-month average is 6 points, Paul in September polling led by over 9 points and broke the 50% mark for the first time.  This would indicate momentum entering the general election.

      In conclusion, the Democrats felt as if they had a chance to pick up a seat formerly held by a Republican, but those chances are slipping away as November 2nd approaches.  This state remains by-and-large a Republican state.  In the last three elections, only one Congressional district voted for the Democratic nominee and then only barely so.  They currently have two Republican Senators and four of six Representatives are Republican.  Unlike New Mexico, which I looked at yesterday where most pundits view it as solid blue but 2010 should change those perceptions, Kentucky is red and should remain so.  The next Senator from Kentucky will be Rand Paul.

     In the Congressional districts, as was mentioned, four of 6 are Republican held.  As all incumbents are running this year, all Republicans are considered safe and thus, the Republican Party can play offense in Kentucky with the two Democratic seats.  The 3rd Congressional District is currently held by Democrat John Yarmuth.  He is being challenged by Todd Lally.  Considered an early target by the Republican Party, Yarmuth has used his incumbency and committee assignments on the Senate Budget and the Ways and Means Committee to flex his political muscles.  Additionally, this is a district that supported Gore, Kerry and Obama.  In the case of Obama, it was a double digit victory and he was one of the first Kentucky politicians to voice support for Obama.  The district itself is centered around Louisville and has a black population higher than the national average.  Thus far in polling, in the five polls I have seen, Yarmuth leads by an average of 15 points.  Considering the fact that Yarmuth was (1) an early supporter of Obama, (2) voted for cap-and-trade, (3) voted for the stimulus, (4) voted for Obamacare, (5) voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (6) voted for the auto bail out, (7) voted against the original Stupak amendment, and (8) eventually voted in favor of TARP, one would have to conclude that his lead in the polls coupled with these facts that the Third District is perhaps the only bastion of “liberalism” in Kentucky.  Personally, it will take a sea change in thought and a stronger candidate than Todd Lally to unseat Yarmuth.  He is not going anywhere given his standing in the Democratic apparatus in the House and his committee assignments.

      In the other Democratic-held district, the 6th, Congressman Ben Chandler is opposed by Republican Andy Barr.  Chandler is part of the Blue Dog Coalition.  The 6th district is in central Kentucky centered around Frankfort.  Unlike the 3rd District, in Presidential races, this district has solidly voted for Bush twice and McCain in double digit leads.  Unfortunately, Chandler has had a fairly easy time of it in his elections, bucking this Republican trend in the district.  Despite being rated +9 on the Cook Report PVI, voters within the district have shown the propensity to send Democrats as well as Republicans to Congress.  However, it would appear that if Democrat, one has to veer towards the center in order to win.  Chandler’s record is batting .600 on the big Obama Five- he voted for the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and the auto bail out and voted against TARP (actually a Bush initiative, but supported by Obama), and most importantly, Obamacare.  Whether that “moderation” is enough to win him election remains to be seen.  Thus far, in the average of four polls over the months, he holds a tenuous 2-point lead over his challenger.  In reality, should Republicans pick up a seat in Kentucky, this would be the most likely target given the demographics of the district despite his claims to Blue Dog status or “moderation” or “bipartisanship.”  One also has to factor in two other things.  First, Kentucky is not spared the anti-incumbent sentiments in the country today and whether the voters decide to kick incumbent Chandler out needs to be factored into the equation.  Second is the top-down voting behavior which should benefit Republicans in Kentucky with Rand Paul headed to victory.  Considering the fact that Chandler owns an average 2-point lead, one would have to conclude that when factoring these other items in, Andy Barr stands a slightly better than even chance of victory.

     The bottom line is that Kentucky remains a basically red state despite little pockets of Democratic leanings.  These are not enough to disrupt the overall balance of power in the state.  It remains to be seen what reapportionment will do to existing districts and whether those Democratic areas will be weakened.  Regardless, with the Senate seat being retained by Republicans in the name of Rand Paul and the possible defeat of Ben Chandler in the 6th District, Kentucky proves its red status.  Actually, without even capturing the 6th district, nationally Republicans are in fine shape.  A Barr victory would be additional icing on the cake.  I am predicting a Republican victory in the 6th District by a narrow margin, Yarmuth to retain his seat and be the lone Democratic voice nationally from Kentucky, and Rand Paul to win.