This Could Be Mitch McConnell’s Last Hurrah
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The Fiscal Times
May 20, 2014

There’s no doubt now that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will cruise to victory over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in Kentucky’s GOP primary on Tuesday, before turning to the all-important fall campaign.

McConnell and the Republicans have hopes of winning back control of the Senate for the first time in seven years – a victory that would enable the 30-year veteran of Congress to supplant his archrival, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), as majority leader.

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McConnell, 72, a conservative institutionalist with an impressive track record of deal making, blames Reid for having transformed the Senate from “the place where the weightiest issues have been discussed and debated” to “fodder for late-night TV.”

He has repeatedly vowed to restore the chamber’s luster – and extract revenge from the Democrats – if his party regains power.

Ironically, today’s primary results may mark the high water mark of McConnell’s ambitions, with disappointments or jarring setbacks looming on the horizon.

McConnell can expect to clobber the hapless Bevin by as much as 20 percentage points, according to the latest polls. Bevin’s once promising campaign against the GOP establishment began to lose altitude after he spoke at a cockfighting rally in Corbin, KY, that his campaign workers insisted he mistook for a state’s rights rally.

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McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, will be far more formidable this fall – and an upset is clearly possible. The latest Bluegrass Poll shows McConnell and Grimes locked in a statistical dead heat. Former President Bill Clinton, a family friend, has already begun to help Grimes raise money and rev up Democratic support.  

Second,  while for the time being  the GOP looks in relatively good shape to pick up the six  Senate seats they need to claim a majority, events on the ground in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and a few other pivotal states are beginning to turn in the Democrats favor. 

While the generic vote currently shows voters favoring Republicans over Democrats in congressional races (by as much as seven percentage points according to a new Politico poll), that could change depending on how individual Senate races unfold throughout the fall. 

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For instance, freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas saw his earlier dismal approval rating shoot up to 51 percent in the latest NBC News/Marist poll. He now holds an 11-point lead in his race against freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a Harvard Law School graduate and combat veteran.

Even if the Republicans succeed in regaining the majority in November, the margin almost certainly will be remarkably narrow – perhaps no more than a single seat – which would leave McConnell with little running room in trying to push through a GOP agenda. It’s even possible the election could end in a 50-50 tie. In that case, Vice President Joe Biden would cast the decisive vote that would keep the majority in the Democrats’ hands.

Regardless of how the fall election plays out, the Democrats would be well positioned to win control of the Senate in 2016, when Republicans must defend twice as many seats as the Democrats and many of those GOP seats will be highly vulnerable.

“Given the playing field that year, Republican losses are at the very least probable in 2016,” wrote Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.  “In fact, they are likely. So if the GOP blows it this year, and if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, he or she could have a sizable -- perhaps even filibuster-proof -- majority. Moreover, if the GOP doesn’t win a decent-size majority this year, it stands a good chance of losing it in 2016 if Democrats have a good year.”

A victory by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential election would be frosting on the cake for Senate Democrats.

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Political analysts agree that McConnell would be mistaken to begin measuring the curtains in the Senate Majority Leader’s office.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, said that while Republicans still are holding a much stronger hand than the Democrats are this year, there are a number of scenarios in which the GOP falls short of its goals.

“Sure, McConnell could lose in the fall, Republicans could lose in a whole bunch of states they think they’re going to win, and President Obama’s support could inch up little by little between now and November--particularly if the economy comes back in a way that convinces people that there’s a jobs recovery underway,” Rothenberg said yesterday in an interview.

“The Democrats could exceed current expectations in terms of turnout . . .  or Democrats could on individual races simply out-campaign, out-target and out-think Republican challengers in places like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and even North Carolina,” he added.

“I think that McConnell has reason to quietly rejoice [about Tuesday’s primary] but he shouldn’t celebrate too ostentatiously,” noted Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political professor. “Maybe a quiet sip of wine with his wife, Elaine Chao, but don’t break open the champagne.”

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.