Democrats hold strong in three key Senate races

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, candidate for U.S. Senate, waits to speak during the 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Aug. 3, 2013.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, candidate for U.S. Senate, waits to speak during the 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Aug. 3, 2013.

Republicans may have a strong chance at capturing the Senate in 2014, but they haven’t won yet.

New NBC News/Marist polls in Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky show Democrats competitive in each state, even as the candidates face a conservative electorate broadly dissatisfied with President Obama’s record.

Democrats are overwhelmingly on defense in 2014, which includes a number of candidates elected in Obama’s 2008 landslide. The two major exceptions are Kentucky and Georgia, both of which appear to hold potential for a Democratic upset based on the latest results.  

In Kentucky, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell holds a dominant 57-25 lead with likely Republican voters over tea party challenger Matt Bevin, whose campaign took a hit after he was caught on video endorsing legal cockfighting at a rally promoting the blood sport. McConnell faces a much closer general election against likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergran Grimes, who he leads by a razor thin margin among registered votes 46 to 45. 

In Georgia, expected Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn polls competitively against all five major Republican candidates, who are currently locked in a tight primary contest. Against businessman David Perdue, Nunn trails 45-41; against Congressman Paul Broun she trailed 43-42; against Congressman Jack Kingston she’s tied at 43-43; against Congressman Phil Gingrey she leads 44-42; against former Secretary of State Karen Handel she leads 42-39.

Unfortunately for Nunn, the candidate polling best against her is also leading an array of polls in the GOP primary. The new NBC-Marist survey is no exception, although Perdue’s lead is hardly prohibitive: 23% of likely GOP primary voters said they support Perdue, 18% back Kingston, 14% are behind Handel, and Broun and Gingrey each take 11%. 

Democrats believe Nunn’s easiest path to victory is against Broun, a hardcore conservative with a history of extreme rhetoric, or Gingrey, who once said Todd Akin’s infamous "legitimate rape" comments were "partly right" before apologizing. Neither of them seems to be catching fire with voters, however, and Broun has struggled to raise money. The primary is May 20 and will go to a July runoff if none of the candidates can top 50% of the vote.

In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor holds a solid 51-40 lead among registered voters over Republican challenger Tom Cotton.

Pryor is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country, weighed down by the twin burdens of an unpopular president and an even more unpopular Congress in a state that’s trended Republican in recent elections. But Pryor seems to be putting enough distance between his own brand and Washington’s toxic one to maintain an edge for now. 

It’s striking that in all three races Democrats remain in the mix even as Obama’s poll numbers remain in the dumps. Just 34% of registered Arkansas voters approve of the president’s performance, versus 60% who disapprove. In Kentucky, he’s at 32% approval and 56% disapproval while in Georgia he holds a 41% approval rating versus 50% of voters who disapprove of his job.  

The president’s signature health care law doesn’t fare any better in the latest polls even after a spate of good news for the administration in recent weeks. In Arkansas, 31% of voters strongly or somewhat think the law was a good idea while 55% think it was a bad idea, 46% of them strongly. In Kentucky, 35% say the law was a good idea versus 50% who say it was a bad one. In Georgia 36% think the law was a good idea and 52% say it was a bad idea.

Voters still seem willing to distinguish at least somewhat between their state and national parties, especially at the gubernatorial level. In Arkansas, Democratic governor Mike Beebe holds an astronomical 79% approval rating in the latest NBC News/Marist poll while Democratic governor Steve Beshear is at 63% in Kentucky. 

Beebe’s popularity hasn’t rubbed off on his potential successor, however. Democratic Congressman Mike Ross trails Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson 49-42 among registered voters in the 2014 governor race.