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Bill Straub: Amy McGrath has won nomination to challenge Mitch McConnell; what will she do with it?

So, now that Amy McGrath has won the Democratic nomination to challenge Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch” McConnell in the fall, what is she going to do with it?

Not much, if you listen to the analysts who are paid to handicap this sort of thing. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball, ramrodded by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and the Cook Political Report, see the ultimate outcome as likely Republican.

And then there’s Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor at the non-partisan political newsletter Inside Elections, who has noted, “Amy McGrath has won the Kentucky Democratic Senate nomination (narrowly) and the right to lose to Mitch McConnell. If you’re a Democrat, your money would be better spent in Maine, N.C., Montana, IA and potentially Kansas & GA. Not that you seem to care.”

In fact, despite carrying the hopes of literally tens of thousands of Kentuckians into the general election, it’s hard to discern a path to victory for McGrath, of Georgetown via Northern Kentucky, especially given the mediocre campaign she just waged. And this time she won’t be facing state Rep. Charles Booker, D-Louisville, and Lincoln County farmer Mike Broihier. McConnell is, arguably, the most successful politician in Commonwealth history and, as usual, he’ll have untold millions of dollars on hand to get the job done.

McConnell has been elected to the U.S. Senate six times, a Kentucky record. After barely squeezing past incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee’’ Huddleston, D-Elizabethtown, in a major 1984 upset, Moscow Mitch has faced a relatively smooth re-election path. In 1996, for instance, he beat a former lieutenant governor named Steve Beshear by about 165,000 votes at a time when Kentucky was still a Democratic state. Beshear later, of course, proved to be a successful two-term governor.

Last time out, in 2014, McConnell was supposed to have a difficult race against then-Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the scion of a Lexington political family with ties to former President Bill Clinton. McConnell won by better than 220,000 votes.

There’s always been a question of what sort of voodoo McConnell practices to acquire the overwhelming support that always seems to fall his way. A bland speaker terminally lacking in charisma, hardly photogenic and stiff on the campaign trail. Mitch is the political equivalent of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – a lot of folks over the years have tried to figure out the source of the melody on which it is based to no avail.

McConnell has benefitted from the fact that some of his opponents have turned out to be duds. Grimes, for instance, was so scared of her own political shadow she refused to state specifically whether or not she had voted for a Democrat, former President Barack Obama, during his re-election campaign in 2012, leaving loyal party members wondering whether she was worth their time or effort.

McGrath has already fallen into the trap trying to mollify conservatives by hinting that she would be a pro-Trump Democrat, thus alienating her base and all but inviting primary opposition. She sealed that deal when she announced, had she been in the Senate, she would have voted to confirm conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a sin so serious she quickly back-tracked to head-off an all-out revolt.

All of that led to Booker’s entry into the race, running naturally to McGrath’s left. He fell short by 15,000 votes and may have won except for the presence of Broihier, who collected about 27,000 progressive votes, and early balloting brought on as a result of COVID-19.

Similar trip-ups against McConnell would, naturally, prove fatal – there’s no time for Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour. But the question remains, after collecting $40 million for the effort, does McGrath have what it takes to best McConnell?

It ain’t promising. In 2018, a Democratic year nationwide, McGrath waged a near-perfect campaign against Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, a back-bencher, in the 6th Congressional District, behind only the Louisville-based 3rd District, in available Democratic faithful. She nonetheless lost by about three percentage points. It raises the question if she can’t win in the Lexington-centric district, how is she going to win statewide?

Supporters then point to the results of the 2019 election that saw Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear, son of the aforementioned Steve Beshear, defeat incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, by less than 6,000 votes statewide, a significant victory given the political direction of the Commonwealth.

But that fails to deal with the fact that Bevin was generally despised from Pikeville to Paducah for any number of gaffes, big and small. The Morning Consult poll found him to be on more than one occasion the nation’s least popular governor. Without placing too sharp a point on it, Bevin was what Bugs Bunny would refer to as a maroon. Even members of his own party loathed him, understandably.

At the same time, Republicans won all five down-ballot statewide races by substantial margins, further solidifying Kentucky’s reputation as a red state.

Then there is the question of McConnell’s popularity, which doesn’t reach Bevin-like depths but is nonetheless nothing to write home about. Mitch is eternally successful even though few people, it seems have any use for him. The RealClear Politics polling average from April 21 to June 30 shows ol’ Root-‘n-Branch with a favorable rating of 25.4 percent while those who find him wanting constitute an eye-popping 51 percent. He is often cited as the least popular member of the Senate among his constituents.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

That’s somewhat misleading, seeing’s how he has managed to win six six-year terms despite the public’s stated distaste. He has managed in recent years to convince voters to send him back to Washington based on his leadership position, which presents him with the ever-present opportunity to bring home the bacon, even though the numbers show Kentucky continues to trail the rest of the nation in just about every economic and social measure available.

And he votes the right way on the only two issues that annually amount to more than a hill of beans to the Commonwealth – abortion and guns, opposing the former and supporting the latter. His emphasis on federal judge appointments provides him with an opportunity to bolster those bona fides.

That doesn’t render him invulnerable or, his detractors hope, invincible. McGrath has a great bio – Marine fighter pilot, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, mother of three – even though it’s devoid of political success. And there are, well, let’s call them possibilities.

McConnell has, for instance, called for cuts in three vital programs – Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare – that help fuel the Commonwealth’s almost-always sputtering economy.

After guiding a worthless tax cut through the Senate two years ago that contributed to a skyrocketing budget deficit, McConnell insisted that the three safety-net programs were the real problem.


The debt, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch, insisted, is “disturbing” and driven by “the three big entitlement programs that are very popular, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.… There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs. Hopefully, at some point here, we’ll get serious about this.”

The programs already are facing challenges — Social Security will exhaust its trust funds in 15 years and Medicare’s Hospital Insurance fund will be depleted in just six. According to AARP, almost one million Kentucky residents receive Social Security benefits and tens of thousands are lined up for the future. They won’t be pleased to receive less than expected after they’ve paid into it for so many years. According to Kaiser, more than 930,000 receive Medicare.

The campaign can start there. Then there’s Mitch’s old bugaboo, Obamacare, which he has vowed to remove, as noted, by root and branch. The program has increased in popularity over the years – particularly during this time of coronavirus-induced unemployment, resulting in a reported 27 million workers losing their benefits.

That was established this week in Oklahoma, not a bastion of liberalism, where voters approved a measure to expand Medicaid – a key provision in the Obamacare package. If the Sooners think expanded Medicaid is worthwhile, Kentuckians likely do too, despite Mitch’s misgivings and mishandling.

So perhaps the situation isn’t as hopeless as outlined by Rothenberg but, to be sure, it ain’t a pretty picture. McGrath has to find the keys to the kingdom. And they’re well hidden.

She has one thing going for her – it’s happened before. Thirty-six years ago an obscure figure emerged from the office of the Jefferson County judge-executive to defeat a well-liked, well-financed two-term incumbent by 5,269 votes, about 0.5 percent of the total.

McGrath had better hope that lightning does, indeed, strike twice in the same place.

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