McConnell’s Influence Still Strong in Kentucky

Posted October 17, 2011 at 6:31pm

In the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican establishment that he helped build is poised for a second loss in as many cycles in next month’s gubernatorial race.

A late September poll of likely voters showed state Senate President David Williams (R) down by 31 points against Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

In interviews with a dozen political operatives familiar with Kentucky politics — Democratic and Republican, in the Bluegrass State and Washington, D.C., affiliated with the Minority Leader and not — the consensus was that McConnell will weather Williams’ expected blowout loss with his influence and reputation completely unscathed.

While he has attended a handful of events and has held a few fundraisers for Williams, McConnell hasn’t appeared in ads for the candidate and isn’t seen as tied to him. The Minority Leader is substantially less involved in this race than he was in the GOP Senate primary last year, when then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson lost to now-Sen. Rand Paul. That was a defeat for McConnell. This election will be different.

Kentucky-based Democratic consultant Jim Cauley said McConnell’s reputation is very unlikely to change after the Nov. 8 contest.

“He’s such a force here, I couldn’t imagine [Williams’ loss] has any impact.”

“The guy is so big and he does so much and he brings home the bacon for the state. I mean, between him and [House Appropriations Chairman] Hal Rogers [R-Ky.], Lord goodness,” Cauley said.

The unique contours of the race, coupled with the difficulty the GOP has had in the past decades in putting a Republican in the governor’s mansion in Frankfort, means that there are few larger national takeaways from the race, Bluegrass State politicos said. Since 1972, nine men have served as the chief executive of the commonwealth; only one, Ernie Fletcher, was a Republican.

But a Beshear victory would be more than just the result of historical trends, with Kentucky voters leaning Republican in most federal elections while being open to backing Democrats statewide. The governor has also run a solid bid for his second term.

“I think Beshear has run an exceptionally smart campaign for re-election,” former McConnell Chief of Staff Billy Piper said. “It’s kind of remarkable that an incumbent at any level is able to maintain strong favorability ratings in this toxic environment.”

“Beshear has done a real good job of making it about Kentucky and Kentucky issues,” Cauley added, echoing a point a number of Republicans made. “And the other side hasn’t done very good at all at tying federal issues to Beshear.”

It has been particularly difficult for Williams to fully separate himself from Beshear because, as Senate President, every piece of legislation the governor signed went through the legislative body he controls.

Privately, Kentucky Republicans concede that Williams has a serious likability problem. He’s also not very popular with the GOP base. In the September poll conducted for the Louisville Courier-Journal by SurveyUSA, only 47 percent of self-identified conservatives said they would vote for Williams.

“Every time a Republican wins or loses in Kentucky, everybody wants to ascribe credit or blame to McConnell — that’s just not accurate in this case,” said a Republican familiar with Kentucky politics. “David has problems that are unique to David: They have nothing to do with the party or the state.”

Williams took a hit when it was revealed that, despite being a staunch opponent of expanding gambling in the state, he was a gambler. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that his divorce records showed he lost more than $36,000 gambling from 1999 to 2002.

The charge of hypocrisy was particularly detrimental to his image, Kentucky
strategists said.

The Williams campaign could not be reached for comment Monday.

“I think the day after the governor’s race is going to be the same as the day before,” said Jon Deuser, a former McConnell staffer and chief of staff to former Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). “Mitch McConnell will still be the pre-eminent political figure in Kentucky.”

While everyone seems to agree that McConnell won’t lose any political capital in the state this November, he made some tweaks after Grayson’s loss. Besides campaigning very hard for Paul and, by most accounts, working amicably with him in the Senate, McConnell has also increased outreach to tea party groups.

“He’s sending staffers to tea party events on a regular basis,” said David Adams, a Kentucky GOP strategist who served as Paul’s 2010 primary campaign manager.

“McConnell does have a representative at most of the tea party meetings,” said Hans Marsen, Kentucky state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “He’s making an effort to make sure he’s represented.”

While Paul’s victory over Grayson was indicative of larger national trends, in the end, this year’s gubernatorial race stands alone, mostly disconnected from federal issues.

“Most times statewide races have their own energy and their own ebb and flow and that’s certainly been the case here,” Piper said.