5.27.2008

Senate shocker: Lunsford could make it a race in Kentucky

And just like that, Kentucky is back in the continually growing group of competitive Senate seats. A week after Bruce Lunsford won the Democratic primary to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rasmussen released a poll that challenges the conventional wisdom of this race:

  • Lunsford leads McConnell 49% to 44%, despite McConnell's satisfying favorability rating, at 52%.
Many of you might remember the series of polls released in the fall that showed McConnell surprisingly vulnerable to challenges by a number of Democrats, starting with Rep. Chandler, state Attorney General Stumbo and state Auditor Crit Luallen. But as all of them declined to run, McConnell's suddenly appeared much more safe. The DSCC encouraged Lunsford to run, but he was generally deemed a second-to-third tier candidate. But perhaps Lunsford can use to his benefit what until now were challenges to overcome; the fact that he has donated money to McConnell in the past and that he supported Republican Ernie Fletcher's election bid in 2003 are certainly proof of Lunsford's shady Democratic credentials and conservative roots and those can help him get elected in a state like Kentucky.

Also, Lunsford will self-fund some of his candidacy (which is one of the main reasons the DSCC pushed him to run and helped him in the primary). McConnell has a war chest of almost $8 million already, and he aired his first ads in the fall to address some of his vulnerabilities. Lunsford's ability to pay for some ads from his own pockets will be critical for Democrats to exploit their opening here.

In response, the McConnell campaign released an internal poll showing the Senator ahead, a poll also taken after the primary to account for any bounce received by the Democrat:

  • In this poll, McConnell is leading Lunsford 50% to 39%, and enjoys 57% approval rating.
This is certainly more reassuring numbers than those released by Rasmussen, but there is a reason the campaign chose not to release them until Rasmussen put them on the defensive: It's not a very good result either. For the Senate Minority Leader and longtime fixture of Kentucky politics to be on the brink of vulnerability (the 50% threshold) is cause for worry, especially when running against a candidate who does not have the popularity or recognition that Chandler or Stumbo might have had. Add to this the fact that internal polls are always to be taken with a grain of salt, and McConnell's effort to lower Republican concerns cannot be regarded as fully successful.

With the Democrats expanding the Senate map in every direction, Republicans believed it had made Kentucky safe. But the Rasmussen poll (combined with the GOP's internal poll that confirms that this will be a tight race to the finish) dashes those hopes. It also strengthens the Democrats' argument that they have a path to a 60-seat Senate majority this year. Let's review the list of Republican-held seats in which a recent poll has shown the Democrat ahead: VA, CO, NH, NM, AK, MN (not since February), MS, NC and now KY. In addition, Merkley and Noriega are polling within 5 points in Oregon and Texas. That's 11 races right there, and we aren't even counting states in which the GOP looks good for now but in which the DSCC is determined to make a move (Maine, and Oklahoma).

Also today, a new Rasmussen poll from Minnesota confirms that the Coleman-Franken showdown will be one of the most entertaining and tightest of the year:

  • Coleman now leads his Democratic challenger 47% to 45%, down from a 7% lead last month. The two men have comparable favorability ratings.
Franken has had a particularly rough few months, as the GOP and the press have relentlessly hammered him for his tax problems. A wave of polls showed him ahead in February but he lost ground since then, but this poll suggests that he might be recovering now. We will wait for other polls to confirm any trends.

Meanwhile, in Montana, a new Mason-Dixon Senate poll, the first of the state's Senate race, confirms that Democratic Senator Baucus is safe even though his state is likely to vote for McCain in the fall. He leads his challengers by 35% or more, with at least 60% of the vote. In better news for Republicans, M-D also found GOP Rep. Rehlberg, who represents the entire state, to be in good shape for his re-election battle despite some Democrats believing that they can put his seat in play. He leads probable Dem nominee Jim Hunt 52% to 20%, flirting with the 50% line but it will be difficult for Hunt, who is largely unknown, to catch up.

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