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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference in September.
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Mitch McConnell’s grip on Kentucky, explained

Democrats face an uphill contest in the conservative state.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Democrats have been trying to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for years, but they haven’t been able to do it.

Among the challenges they face is Kentucky’s conservative skew and the solid base of support McConnell has as a result. By emphasizing the funding he’s been able to bring back to Kentucky for projects like a veterans affairs medical center in Louisville and stressing how his prominent position benefits the state, McConnell has also made a case for his reelection that continues to resonate with many voters.

According to a recent Mason-Dixon poll, McConnell leads Democratic challenger and former fighter pilot Amy McGrath 51 percent to 42 percent — a gap that experts see persisting. “I would describe the race as generating a lot of media and public interest, but not actually competitive,” Anne Cizmar, an Eastern Kentucky University government professor, told Vox.

McGrath is the latest challenger to McConnell, who has been in office for 36 years and become synonymous with the obstruction of Democratic legislation and judicial nominees in his leadership role. Last year, he gleefully embraced the title of “Grim Reaper” for House Democratic bills. And in October, he rushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett after refusing to consider Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016.

Amy McGrath speaks at a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, in October. McGrath aims to unseat McConnell in the 2020 election.
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As part of her campaign, McGrath has called out McConnell’s role in the “swamp” and brought in a stunning amount of funding, which has enabled her to advertise widely in the state. She has also pressed McConnell on why he has held up stimulus for millions of Kentuckians who are dealing with unemployment and business closures, even as he has prioritized Barrett’s nomination.

Despite McGrath’s fundraising acumen, however, Kentucky’s conservatism makes any challenge to a top Republican leader very difficult. In 2016, President Donald Trump won Kentucky by a whopping 30 percentage points, while McConnell won his previous Senate race in 2014 by 16.

“I think it’s difficult for any Democratic candidate,” said Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor. “Kentucky remains a conservative state at the federal level.”

Kentucky’s partisan lean makes statewide races hard to win for Democrats

In 2019, Andy Beshear pulled off a major win for Democrats by beating incumbent Matt Bevin for the governor’s seat. Beshear’s win, however, involved unique circumstances and likely is not a sign of lasting movement toward Democrats in the state, experts caution.

Bevin, for one, was disliked both by Democrats and some Republicans. A bombastic politician who pushed cuts to teacher’s pensions and Medicaid, Bevin took actions that provoked widespread protest, including several teachers strikes. Beshear, meanwhile, framed himself as an ally to educators and a moderate alternative to the incumbent. He also benefited from strong name recognition in the state since his father had previously served as governor.

“The election of Beshear was somewhat anomalous because he had a Republican incumbent who had annoyed a lot of people, including Republicans,” said Murray State University political science professor Jim Clinger.

While McConnell has pretty high disapproval ratings as well, he isn’t disliked in quite the same way — particularly by Republicans, a segment of whom McGrath would need to win over to flip the Senate seat. And even Republicans who may not be huge fans of McConnell recognize the importance of holding on to the seat to maintain GOP representation in the Senate, not to mention the benefits McConnell brings to the state’s profile.

McConnell has high disapproval ratings as a congressional leader, but Republicans in Kentucky are still backing him.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“For a state like Kentucky to go from the Senate majority leader to a backbench Democrat, that’s leaving hundreds of billions of dollars on the table,” said Republican strategist Tres Watson.

McConnell has repeatedly pointed to funding secured for Kentucky as evidence of his influence in the Senate: In December 2019, he brought back $1 billion in federal money for regional projects, including tax breaks for distillers along with funds for military construction efforts.

“It resonates with Kentuckians that he’s in a leadership position,” said Western Kentucky University political science professor Saundra Ardrey.

McConnell also has a cushion in support that many other Republican senators — particularly those in tight races — do not: how conservative Kentucky has become. Nationally, a segment of moderate voters has turned away from Trump and the Senate candidates who are aligned with him, putting seats in places like Arizona, Iowa, and even South Carolina in contention for Democrats. In Kentucky, however, the staunch Republican support McConnell is expected to win is still set to surpass potential moderate losses.

“It’s starting from a very Republican place, so even after the shift, it’s not going to be as promising for a Democrat here,” said University of Kentucky political science professor D. Stephen Voss.

That dynamic has been evident in other races as well: Republican Sen. Rand Paul won his race by 15 points in 2016, and five of the state’s six House districts are currently held by Republicans. Trump may not win by 30 points again, but he’s still expected to maintain a hefty lead in the state. Many of the voters who support Trump for the presidency are likely to back McConnell as well, though McGrath has tried to target some of them.

McGrath has seen a boost from strong fundraising

McGrath has been a powerhouse fundraiser, bringing in $88 million as of October, compared to McConnell’s $55 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This funding has enabled the campaign to put out expansive advertising, highlighting McGrath’s biography as a Marine Corps fighter pilot and her stance as a more centrist Democrat.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has reported, McGrath established herself as an insurgent candidate in 2018, when she won a primary for a House seat in the state’s Sixth District after launching a viral ad that highlighted her two decades of service in the Marine Corps. For the 2020 Senate race, Democrats saw McGrath’s ideological positioning and record as a veteran as key assets for taking on McConnell.

McGrath at a rally on October 27 in Louisville.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

A close primary challenge from progressive state Rep. Charles Booker suggested that her more moderate approach wasn’t resonating with some voters, however. And in the primary and general elections, McGrath’s campaign has been marred by some missteps, including muddled political stances.

In 2019, she said she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, then quickly changed her position. And during the primary with Booker, he criticized her initial response to protests against racism and police brutality. Booker has since endorsed McGrath for the general election, and she’s also released a plan focused on advancing racial justice that includes provisions aimed at closing the wealth gap between Black and white households.

McGrath has also emphasized the need to protect the Affordable Care Act. And she’s homed in on approving more coronavirus stimulus for struggling families and businesses — something McConnell has played a central role in slowing down as he’s prioritized the confirmation of Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Ryan Aquilina, the executive director of the Ditch Mitch Fund, says his organization hopes McGrath will win an upset by turning out Democratic base voters and flipping moderate Republican voters. His organization has also been working to cut into McConnell’s advantage by reaching out to conservative voters who may not think the Republican senator is conservative enough for them. (Libertarian Brad Barron is also running in the race.)

Experts say McGrath’s campaign has become more targeted, and it has of late been buoyed by a strong debate performance. Democrats hope to pick up support in the suburbs of major cities including Louisville and Lexington, much like Beshear did in 2019. According to McGrath’s campaign, she’s seen strong support from young voters, Black voters, and women during early voting so far.

The push to flip the seat, though, is still an uphill one. “We know we’ve been the underdogs from the start,” Aquilina says.