Just a couple of months after Ashley Judd decided against a hopeless quest to unseat Republican Mitch McConnell, another woman has stepped forward to challenge the Republican Senate minority leader. Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, doesn’t have Judd’s worst baggage—like asserting that breeding is “unconscionable” or describing herself as a “radical.” Lundergan Grimes is also a state-level politician who hasn’t yet taken stances on issues, giving her a chance to define herself as a conservative Democrat. But the conventional wisdom is right: Despite low approval ratings, McConnell is a favorite.
Mainstream, liberal Democrats lose in Kentucky—and lose big. That’s why Judd didn’t have a chance, and it leaves open the possibility that Lundergan Grimes could pose a more serious challenge to McConnell. But even Kentucky Democrats struggle to win federal elections. Democrats have had three solid chances to win Republican-held Senate seats over the last three cycles, and they’ve fallen short each time. They couldn’t beat a senile Jim Bunning in 2004, a TARP-supporting McConnell during the 2008 Democratic wave, and a libertarian Rand Paul in a working class, populist state.
McConnell’s last reelection campaign suggests he’ll be tough to beat. 2008 was already a tough year for Republicans, but after the economy collapsed in September, McConnell was forced to support and shepherd the Wall Street bailout. The ensuring populist backlash threatened his reelection, but McConnell still defeated Bruce Lunsford by a convincing six-point margin.
2014’s economic and political climate will be more favorable to McConnell’s reelection than it was in 2008. Kentucky has moved even further right since 2008, too. The president is deeply unpopular in Kentucky and lost by nearly 23 points in November. The president’s climate change policy, better known as the “war on coal” in this part of the country, has made it harder for down-ballot Democrats to run-up big margins in coal country—a region that Democrats need to carry by a large margin to win statewide.
On the other hand, McConnell’s approval ratings are somewhat lower than they were six years ago. But many of the voters who disapprove of McConnell’s performance are conservatives, who aren’t likely to vote for a Democrat. That’s why McConnell is outperforming his approval ratings against Democrats like Lundergan Grimes or Judd. And that’s why Lundergan Grimes won’t win unless she can appeal to the conservative Democrats who typically support Republicans against liberal Democratic challengers. If she budges from the populist-conservative blueprint, let alone guns or coal, McConnell will unleash a barrage of negative advertisements that will effectively end the race.
But even if Lundergan Grimes does run as a true conservative, Kentucky Democrat, she still won’t be favored to beat McConnell. The Guardian’s Harry Enten has the numbers that illustrate her long odds: The opposition party has lost just 6 percent of Senate seats in the last eight midterm elections; an incumbent senator of the opposition party has won 62 of 63 races in a state where the opposition party did better in the presidential election than it did nationwide. McConnell is certainly more vulnerable than the average senator running in those conditions, but he was also far more vulnerable in 2008—when he won by a six-point margin. The sad fact for Democrats is that there hasn't been a clear path for a Democrat running for federal office to reach 50 percent in a very long time.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated Lundergan Grimes's first name. It's Alison, not Ashley.