Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race is proving to be one of the more fascinating of the 2014 cycle, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a powerful-but-unpopular incumbent, facing a contentious primary and an even stronger general-election foe: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a young Democrat looking quite strong in a “red” state.
Because Democrats consider the race a top national priority, the party is prepared to provide as much support as possible to Lundergan Grimes. But because it’s Kentucky – a state Mitt Romney won by 23 points – don’t expect President Obama to make any appearances in the Blue Grass State. As we saw yesterday, however, Lundergan Grimes will gladly stand alongside former President Bill Clinton.
The former president’s presence on the stage also underscored a larger truth of the 2014 midterm campaign: Mr. Clinton is embraced in states, mainly in the South and the West, where Mr. Obama is all but unwelcome.So the party is again turning to Mr. Clinton to help Democrats in seven of the most competitive Senate races, all of which are in states Mr. Obama lost in 2012. “He’s probably the most popular national Democrat alive,” Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, a fellow Democrat, said of the former president.Democratic strategists, and some candidates, are nearly giddy in discussing Mr. Clinton’s approval ratings in private polling but are far more sober when asked about Mr. Obama. “I’m a Clinton Democrat through and through,” said Ms. Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, in an interview, suggesting that it was highly unlikely she would invite Mr. Obama to Kentucky.
Clinton knows how it feels to be on the side of this political dynamic. It may seem hard to believe now, given the former president’s broad popularity, but there were quite a few Democrats during his White House tenure who didn’t want to campaign alongside Clinton. In one especially ugly instance, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R) suggested in 1994, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He better have a bodyguard.”
That was 20 years ago. Today, Clinton’s standing is arguably without rival. And for Democrats, this creates a pretty powerful bench when it comes to campaigning – where Obama is popular, the president will be welcome to rally the Democratic troops and raise lots of money, and where Obama is unpopular, Clinton can fill the gap quite nicely.
It’s the kind of bench Republicans can only dream of.
For Democrats, the list of high-profile, national figures isn’t short. There’s President Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, and Bill Clinton. We don’t yet know Hillary Clinton’s electoral plans, but I think it’s safe to say she’d be welcomed by nearly all Democratic candidates in 2014 races nationwide.
For Republicans, the list is more problematic. Former President George W. Bush isn’t as dreadfully unpopular as he was while in office, but we still won’t see him hitting the campaign trail anytime soon. Former Vice President Dick Cheney might do an occasional fundraiser, but he’s not going to be a major player in the midterms.
Former President George H.W. Bush probably isn’t physically able to maintain a tough travel schedule, and even if he were, he’s not a broadly popular figure. Former Vice President Dan Quayle is, well, still Dan Quayle.
So who’s left? Mitt Romney will probably try to make himself available, but he’s not a major national draw. Chris Christie was supposed to be a popular addition to any campaign schedule, but his multiple scandals have changed the equation. And then there’s … Rand Paul? Ted Cruz? Sarah Palin?
To be sure, there’s a limit as to the practical effects. In major races, candidates can rarely say they’ll win or lose based on the stature of their surrogates and supporters. In the Kentucky race, the outcome will be decided far more on McConnell and Lundergan Grimes themselves, not Clinton or Obama.
But when it comes to fundraising, generating excitement from the party base, lending national credibility to state and local races, and building a campaign infrastructure, Democrats have what Republicans don’t: national leaders the party actually likes.