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The Democrats Have A Candidate In Kentucky. But Can She Beat Mitch McConnell?

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, and Democrats would love nothing more than to defeat the GOP leader. And now one major Democratic candidate has stepped up to challenge him: retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath. But Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up too high. Kentucky’s strong Republican lean makes it unlikely that McGrath or any other Democrat will defeat McConnell in 2020.

McGrath, of course, is no stranger to just how difficult it is to run as a Democrat in Kentucky. In 2018, she ran unsuccessfully for Kentucky’s 6th District where she lost to incumbent GOP Rep. Andy Barr by 3 points. But she did manage to raise an eye-popping $8.5 million in the process, making it the 10th-most expensive House election in the country. Her performance also led to speculation that she might run for governor in 2019 or the Senate in 2020. But after heavy recruitment from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, she opted for the latter.

And while McGrath might be one of the best candidates Democrats can put up against McConnell, it will still be mighty difficult for her to actually win in ruby red Kentucky. As of 2018, Kentucky was about 23 points more Republican than the country as a whole1 — so to put that into perspective, the entire state is more than twice as Republican-leaning as the House district (R+11) she ran in last November.

Moreover, states tend to back the same party for the presidency and Senate, especially when they’re on the ballot together. In 2016, for instance, every single state voted the same way for both offices, the first time that had ever happened.2 This is particularly troubling for McGrath, as President Trump won Kentucky by 30 points in 2016, and his net approval rating there is still +15, according to recent data on Trump’s job approval from Morning Consult.

So even if McGrath outperformed whomever the Democrats nominate for president, she would have to do so by a large margin to stand a chance of defeating McConnell. Take Kentucky’s 2016 Senate race: Democrat Jim Gray outperformed Hillary Clinton 43 percent to 33 percent, but still lost by about 15 points to Republican Sen. Rand Paul. In other words, if Trump is winning by double-digits at the top of the ballot, it’s going to be hard for a Democrat to win enough split-ticket votes to carry the day.

Is it possible? Sure. It would take nearly everything to break McGrath’s way, though. For one, the national environment would need to be really beneficial for Democrats — probably even more Democratic-leaning than the 2018 cycle was. Maybe McGrath can get help from a strong Democatic presidential nominee. And it’s not like McConnell himself is invulnerable: He has a poor approval rating in his home state, despite its strong GOP lean. The most recent Morning Consult data pegged his approval rating at just 36 percent compared with 50 percent who disapprove of him, making him the most unpopular senator in the country.

But Democrats have gotten their hopes up about beating the unpopular McConnell before. In 2014, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes seemed like a promising Democratic challenger to take on McConnell, but he still easily won reelection by slightly more than 15 points. Granted, 2014 was a really good cycle for Republicans, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bluegrass State is probably too red to elect a Democratic senator at the moment, barring some unexpected development.

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  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

  2. At least since the 17th amendment established popular elections for Senate in 1913.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.