Fourth, borrowing from Harry Enten, we should appreciate just how unusual it would be for an incumbent like Mitch McConnell to lose. Since 1982, 226 incumbents have run for re-election in midterm elections. Only 26, or 12 percent, have lost. If we narrow our analysis to those incumbents who have run in midterm elections while the other party has occupied the White House, 109 have run for re-election. Only five, or 5 percent, have lost. Of those, two lost in 1998 and two lost in 2002. In both cases the opposing party’s president had a job approval of over 60 percent, vs. Barack Obama’s job approval in the mid-40s. If we narrow even further, to look only at Democrats running in states that leaned toward the Democrat in the previous presidential election, or Republicans running in states that leaned toward the Republican, only one candidate of 65 has lost.
Many of these incumbents running in midterms in ideologically favorable states have looked vulnerable early on. This is, incidentally, true of McConnell, who has almost always had tough races. Indeed, he only trailed in one poll in 2008, but he rarely had huge leads either: Mason-Dixon and Survey USA both showed effectively tied races very late in the cycle in 2008 before finding the undecideds breaking heavily McConnell’s way in the closing weeks.
This isn’t to say that Grimes can’t win. This isn’t a “safe Republican” seat, nor is it probably a “likely Republican” seat either. None of the factors I described at the beginning of the piece have disappeared. Just because the Democratic coalition in the state has weakened doesn’t mean it is impossible for Grimes to re-create it. If a Democrat were to do so, it would be against an unpopular incumbent, who is the face of an unpopular party and one of the faces of an unpopular city. In other words, McConnell. Likewise, if a Republican running in a red state in a midterm election when a Democrat occupied the White House were to lose, he would probably look a lot like McConnell as well. The point is just that when you lay the ledgers out side by side, especially after looking at what has been going on with recent federal races in Kentucky, it’s just difficult to call this a 50-50 proposition. McConnell has the edge.