A PPP poll last week showed Sen. Addison "Mitch" McConnell (R-KY) and his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes essentially tied. While polls 15 months before an election mean close to nothing, the mere fact that Grimes is potentially close is going to lead to a very complicated situation at many levels. To start with, McConnell, a five-term senator, is in a vise. He is simultaneously being challenged from the left (by Grimes) and from the right, by a tea party candidate, businessman Matt Bevin. Although McConnell has a huge warchest of $15 million--in a deep red state with no expensive media markets--he is in big trouble. As minority leader, he is keenly aware that if the Republicans lose one seat in 2014--for example, his--their chances of taking over the Senate suddenly drop very sharply. Off the top of his head, he could probably name half a dozen tea party candidates who defeated establishment favorites in recent Republican senatorial primaries (for example, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Ted Cruz in Texas, Mike Lee in Utah, and Rand Paul in his own state of Kentucky). The first three went on to lose general election races that the defeated establishment candidate would probably have won. The last three won their general elections and are now sitting senators.
One pattern that emerges from the above six races is that when a tea party candidate wins the Republican primary in a blue or purple state, he or she loses the general election, but in a deep red state, the tea party candidate gets elected. Is Kentucky a deep red state? Well, it depends on what you mean. Mitt Romney crushed Barack Obama in 2012 in Kentucky by 23 points. However, the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, and six of the seven statewide elected officers are Democrats. Only the Commissioner of Agriculture is a Republican, so Kentucky is far from a one-party state.
To top all this off, McConnell is quite unpopular in his own state, with an approval rating of a mere 36%. All this makes for a very combustible mix. First McConnell is going to have to fend off attacks from Bevin in the primary. The conservative movement hates McConnell and would love to see him defeated, especially knowing that a Bevin would have a decent shot in the general election, like Cruz, Lee, and Paul. It sees McConnell as a compromiser and deal maker. For the minority leader, this is a natural thing to be, but movement conservatives see this as a grievous sin. They will pull out all stops for Bevin and will attack McConnell without mercy.
On the other hand, establishment Republicans will never sit idle and watch one of their own go down in a primary. While they defended Trey Grayson, then the Kentucky Secretary of State in the 2010 senatorial primary against Rand Paul, Grayson was not one of their own, merely one of two nonincumbent Republicans vying for an open seat. McConnell is not only a long-time sitting senator, but the party leader, and with Speaker John Boehner looking weaker by the day, arguably the most powerful Republican in the country. The NRSC will do everything in its power to take down Bevin.
As a consequence, the Republican primary is going to be exceedingly negative and bloody. McConnell can't brag about his many achievements as a five-term senator, because he doesn't have any. There aren't any laws he championed that were passed and even if there were, Bevin would attack them as bad laws. All McConnell can do is try to disembowel Bevin, who will counter that McConnell is for all intents and purposes, a liberal, something that, say, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) or Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) would probably dispute. Both sides are going to be well funded and whoever wins may come out broke and bloodied. In contrast, Grimes has no serious competition and can spend the primary season building up her name recognition with positive ads and raising money, much of it from out of state.
It is far from clear what the best strategy is for the Democrats. A fresh face, like Bevin, in a fairly "red" state might actually be the Republicans best hope. This is the Cruz/Paul model. But even in red states, a candidate who is too conservative, can go down, as did Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012. On the other hand, McConnell has managed to be elected to the Senate five times and certainly can't be counted out in a general election race against Grimes. If during the primary campaign, Bevin says enough outrageous things to please his base (but alienate independents), Obama could help Bevin win the primary by praising McConnell and saying he is someone he can cut deals with. Needless to say, Bevin will see this as campaign fodder to skewer McConnell with. If the Democrats decide they want to run against McConnell in November, Obama can attack McConnell over and over as someone who refuses to budge and is impossible to deal with.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, McConnell is still minority leader. He knows that everything he does until the primary can be used against him, so he is likely to move to the right and refuse to work with the Democrats at all, even to the detriment of his party. For example, he may oppose popular bills that even Republicans like, such as the recent transportation and housing bill that failed a cloture vote. Also, he is not going to lobby the House leadership to pass the Senate's immigration bill, even if that means the Republicans won't be able to elect a President in 2016. The danger is that if he blocks enough popular measures, Grimes is going to beat him over the head with that if he does survive the primary. Earlier this week she quipped: "If doctors told Sen. McConnell he has a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it."
In short, the Kentucky Senate race, which could well determine control of the Senate in 2015, is going to be a real feast for political junkies. Get your popcorn and stay tuned