Which lessons, if any, could be applied to Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. Senate race from neighboring Virginia’s gubernatorial election which went down to the wire last night?
(1 The role of fundraising—in Virginia, the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, had a huge fundraising advantage over his Republican opponent. In Kentucky, the political roles are expected to be the opposite: Republican Mitch McConnell has a sizeable fundraising head start over Democratic frontrunner Alison Grimes from his accumulated war chest. It’s true Mrs. Grimes outraised Mr. McConnell in the most recent quarter, but even if she outraises him by the same margin for the rest of the campaign, Mr. McConnell will still likely be able to outspend her by a considerable amount. In Virginia, the huge fundraising difference did not translate into a huge vote difference. McAuliffe won by two percentage points, a very slim margin of victory for a statewide race. Supporters of Mitch McConnell should take note; a big advantage in fundraising doesn’t always guarantee a big margin of victory.
(2 Rural versus urban—Virginia’s large urban areas, particularly northern Virginia near Washington DC and the Hampton Roads area in the southeast which includes Norfolk, Hampton, Chesapeake, and Suffolk voted for McAuliffe in a big way. Meanwhile rural Virginia, which geographically is most of the state, voted solidly for Republican Ken Cuccinelli. With five or six heavily populated counties essentially deciding the election for Democrats, preferences for rural and urban voters couldn’t be more divided. Alison Grimes supporters should take note: if she can’t win Jefferson County, including Kentucky’s largest city Louisville and home to Mitch McConnell, it is unlikely she will garner enough votes to win the election. If 2014 comes down to rural verses urban voters, the urban voters have numbers on their side. While most of Kentucky, like Virginia, is rural, those areas are sparsely populated compared to major cities.
(3 Wedge issues—in Virginia the wedge issue seems to have been Obamacare. Urban voters overwhelmingly blamed the government shutdown on Republicans while the opposite happened in rural areas. Kentucky has been in the national spotlight recently as a positive example of how it successfully rolled out the new health care law. In turn that has generated favorable national attention for Kentucky, which means it will be difficult for Mr. McConnell to pillory the new health care law without being vulnerable to the charge he is attacking the good image of his own state. For eastern Kentucky, the emerging wedge issue is coal. The already fragile economy in eastern Kentucky has taken a beating in the last two years with the loss of over 6,000 good paying coal industry jobs. In this part of Kentucky, which contains about a quarter of the total electorate, Senator McConnell might be more successful in forcing Alison Grimes to carry President Obama’s policies which are widely viewed as anti-coal in the region.
Put it all together and you have the perfect recipe for an excruciatingly close race. If the forces that played out in Virginia in 2013 take a similar course in neighboring Kentucky in 2014, we’re in for a nail-biter.