How vulnerable is Mitch McConnell?

This winter, polls have shown Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell running even against Democrat Alison Grimes. This has caused me to view the race as a toss-up. (I assume for purposes of discussion that McConnell will defeat his Tea Party opponent in the primary).

However, the New York Times, in its preview of a new political analysis site called Upshot (if this is the successor to Nate Silver’s operation it has much to live up to), contends that the polls overstate McConnell’s vulnerability. Indeed, the Times’ Nate Cohn, says that a McConnell defeat would be “all but unprecedented.”

Mr. McConnell is not only an incumbent senator who represents the party opposed to the White House in a midterm election, but he also comes from a state that opposes the president. Since 1956, only seven senators in these circumstances have lost re-election. The last time was in 1998, when John Edwards defeated Senator Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina.

Moreover, as Cohn points out, Edwards had the benefit of a popular incumbent president, which Grimes obviously lacks.

Cohn reminds us of just how “Red” Kentucky is:

Kentucky is an extremely favorable state for a Republican candidate: It voted for Romney and McCain by an average of 25 points to the right of the country.

Taking this into account, it appears that a McConnell defeat would be unprecedented:

No senator has lost in a state as favorable as Kentucky when the president represents the other party. And it’s not even close. . . .States with serious reservations about the incumbent president seem unwilling to dismiss the president’s opponents in the Senate.

In fact, states that lean strongly in favor of the incumbent Senator’s party seldom cast off the incumbent, period.

Since 1956, only one incumbent senator has lost re-election in a state more favorable than Kentucky under any circumstance. That senator was Ted Stevens, who was convicted on seven counts of corruption just one week before the 2008 election, in a tough year for Republicans. Despite all of that, he lost by only one percentage point.

Is there any factor that might cause McConnell to lose in November despite all of his natural advantages. Perhaps. For one thing, the Tea Party didn’t exist during much of the history Cohn cites. If bitterness over the primary causes many normally Republican voters to stay home in November, one can easily envisage a Grimes victory.

In addition, the Senate traditionally has been held in more esteem by the public than it is these days. So perhaps the incumbent’s edge isn’t all it used to be.

Even so, Cohn has persuaded me that the McConnell-Grimes race probably isn’t a pure toss-up at this point.

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