Election season is getting underway early in Eastern Kentucky, even with local races still relatively quiet.
Recently, two Democrats vying for the opportunity to take on U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the general election made stops locally, with 43rd Dist. state Rep. Charles Booker visiting Pikeville on Feb. 14 and Amy McGrath visiting Prestonsburg and Pikeville on Feb. 17.
Whether these visits will ultimately be effective in their quests, first for the Democratic nomination and then for the seat held by one of the nation’s strongest campaigners, remains to be seen, but political experts agree that anyone seeking to unseat McConnell is in for a challenge.
Running in ‘Trump Country’
According to Nancy Cade, Davenport Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Sturgill Distinguished Professor at the University of Pikeville, McConnell benefits from several factors, including the current political environment under President Donald Trump.
“Eastern Kentucky is Trump country,” Cade said. “The Democrats know that if they want to make any dent in the vote turnouts in this district, in this region of the country, in Eastern Kentucky, they’re going to have to — absolutely have to — turn out the vote.”
Cade said that, unlike in many statewide races, the Democratic Party cannot count on the large cities to carry them to victory.
“McConnell’s from Louisville,” she said. “He’ll carry Louisville. So they’ve got to chip away a little bit of the vote in other areas.”
Cade said the race for the U.S. Senate may be voted on by Kentuckians, but it is not a Kentucky race.
“The McConnell race is not a Kentucky race,” she said. “This is a national race. He is a national figure. The job he does as majority leader, the iron grip he has over the Senate — what the Senate can consider, what the Senate can do at various times — is of national importance.”
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an expert on state politics, agreed.
McConnell, Cross said, has become to the national Democratic party what Nancy Pelosi is to the Republican party, a “chief pinata” to knock around. And the issues, he said, are more national than local.
“I think Trump has made that all the moreso,” Cross said. “He is such a dominant political character. He has hijacked and redefined the Republican Party. I think Republicans and, some Democrats, increasingly see him and McConnell as joined at the hip ... and I think that benefits McConnell.”
McConnell’s role in the Senate’s impeachment trial, Cross said, will likely benefit the senior senator.
“I think a lot of Trump supporters would say that Mitch was there when the president needed him,” Cross said. “And it was clear that he managed the trial in a way that was beneficial to Trump and that benefits him politically.”
The Trump relationship, Cade said, could become a double-edged sword, as the president has often turned on a dime on those formerly seen as political allies.
“In this area, I really think that Trump carries over McConnell,” she said. “We’ve seen the power the president has over his voters when he turns on a candidate.”
Cade said she believes local voters are focused on local issues.
“They’re not focusing on him nationally,” she said. “Voters in this area are focused on two things ... coal and jobs.”
That, Cade said, will hurt Booker because of his stated support for a “Green New Deal” type of plan. McGrath, as well, has talked about environmental issues, such as climate change.
However, she said, McConnell has not really staked a claim on the issue, other than to express support for the coal industry.
“There’s this strong belief in this area that coal can come back,” she said. “But I don’t think people realize it’s really not coming back. There’s too many strikes against it.”
For Kentucky voters, Cade said, the question is whether McConnell’s position and power is helping the people of the commonwealth.
“The argument is being made by the Democrats, and I think being made very well, that he is not benefitting them,” she said.
McConnell’s game, McConnell’s court
Cade said McConnell is an expert campaigner, which makes the way the Democrats will have to focus on on-the-ground one-to-one campaign tactics, such as Booker and McGrath displayed during their recent visits. Booker spoke with a small crowd in the UPike chapel, while McGrath stopped at some local businesses and organizations before holding a meet-and-greet at the Hilton Garden Inn in
“McConnell’s never lost an election,” she said. “He was student council president in high school. He was student council president in college. The man has never lost an election. He knows how to run them. They put him in charge of the Republican Senate races several times. He knows how to run an election. He is exceptionally talented at that.”
Cade said that, with Trump being as popular as he is in this area and with McConnell being talented at elections, it’s forcing candidates like McGrath and Booker to take on old-fashioned tactics, such as on-the-ground, one-on-one campaigning.
“Retail politics works,” she said.
Cross pointed out that McGrath does represent a greater challenge than McConnell has faced before.
“Democratic leaders realize, I think, realize their chances of unseating him in Kentucky are slim and none and slim’s probably left town already,” he said. “But they have a candidate (McGrath) who’s able to compete with McConnell on money throughout, probably. McConnell’s never faced an opponent like that.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org website, as of Dec. 31, McConnell had raised a total of $17.4 million for this race. McGrath, who has been in the race for a much shorter time, has raised $16.8 million, and still has $9.1 million on-hand.
Cade said McConnell also often performs better against women candidates than men, something which is a strike against McGrath.
“Kentucky does not like to vote for women,” Cade said. “Look at our national congressional delegation. Look at our state house. Look at our governors.”
But, she said, McGrath, a former Marine, is different.
“McGrath — she’s very different,” Cade said. “She worked in the Pentagon. She’s not a career politician. She didn’t take your typical path of law school or something like that. She took a different path.”
Even with that amount of money, Cross said, the Democrats may be overestimating the impact the funding will have, even if McGrath escapes the Democratic primary with the nomination.
“It’s hard to see how she makes that big a dent in McConnell’s support,” he said.
In addition to McGrath and Booker, Democrats Jimmy C. Ausbrooks, Mike Broihier, Maggie Jo Hilliard, Andrew J. Maynard, Eric Rothmuller, John R. Sharpensteen, Bennie J. Smith and Mary Ann Tobin are seeking the nomination, while McConnell is facing a primary challenge from Nicholas Alsager, Wendell K. Crow, Paul John Frangedakis, Louis Grider, Naren James, Kenneth Lowndes and C. Wesley Morgan.
Can the Democrats win?
Regardless of who wins in the primary, both experts believe the Democrats face an uphill battle in facing McConnell, who will likely come out of the primary as the nominee.
“Not a chance,” Cade said of the Democrats’ ability to beat the majority leader.
“I remember when Alison Grimes was running and she came here quite often,” Cade said. “She had a pretty good draw when she would come here. She would get a lot people turning out to see her. Well, I don’t know what they did on election day because they didn’t come out to vote for her.”
Cade said she predicts that, regardless of who McConnell faces in November, he will likely win by as much as 10 or 12 points. However, she said that could change.
Cross is more careful in his estimation, particularly after seeing Trump win the presidency.
“You wouldn’t think so, but I always think back to what I said the night Donald Trump got elected,” Cross said. “I said, ‘Now, almost anything can happen.’ In the Trump era, you just don’t know. (Trump) could blow up and self-destruct but people who have been wishing that on him have been disappointed for three years, so that’s probably not going to happen.
“We live in a more unpredictable political world these days,” he said.