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Will black voters make the difference in Kentucky?

As recent polls show Senator Mitch McConnell ahead in his race to keep his seat, opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes relies on a key Democratic base.
Campaign supporters cheer for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes during a campaign rally at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 3, 2014.
Campaign supporters cheer for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes during a campaign rally at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 3, 2014.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In recent weeks, black voters in Kentucky have noticed a brand new presence: Senator Mitch McConnell. In radio ads on shows with predominantly black audiences like "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," in ubiquitous television ads featuring black women, the Republican senator fighting a fierce reelection battle paints himself as the community’s advocate.

“As an African-American, I know from personal experience that Mitch fights for our community and cares about us,” says Noelle Hunter in one McConnell radio ad.

Cheri Bryant Hamilton, who has been a Democratic member of the Louisville Metro Council for fourteen years, is skeptical. “Nobody has ever seen him out here,” she said at the last Louisville rally for McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. That event was held, not coincidentally, at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage. “He won’t come to the black community," Hamilton said of McConnell, who has been in the Senate for thirty years. "He’s been invited to events. He doesn’t show up.” 

Behind in recent polls by as many as nine points after a streak of ties, Grimes’s campaign has a lingering hope: That black voters show up for her, no matter how much she distances herself from President Barack Obama, who remains popular in the community. About 8.2% of Kentucky’s population is black, according to the most recent census, slightly below the national average. But in 2008, black voters made up 11% of the electorate, according to exit polls. That dropped to 6% of the electorate in 2010, a wave year for Republicans. 

That midterm drop-off is a well-known phenomenon nationally, but according to a recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Kentucky experienced among the steepest declines in black voter turnout between 2008 and 2010 out of all the states the authors looked at. If the black turnout and the white preference for Republicans looks like 2010, there is no way for a Democrat to win statewide in Kentucky even if they get 95% of the black vote. Grimes' only conceivable path to victory is higher turnout in black strongholds in and around Louisville and Lexington, and chipping away white voters who are sick of McConnell. 

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP, said his group is fervently phone-banking and helping voters with rides to the polls. “Not everyone recognizes the importance of midterm elections,” he told msnbc. “Our message has been trying to move them to get them out.”

Congressman John Yarmuth, an energetic surrogate for Grimes, told msnbc at the Louisville rally that a high black turnout could mean sixty or seventy thousand votes for Grimes. "I spend at least forty percent of my time among African-American voters, and there’s an amazing amount of energy for Alison,” he said.   

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Grimes has had members of the Congressional Black Caucus campaign for her, as well as civil rights icon and former state senator Georgia Davis Powers. She has run ads featuring black surrogates who say "McConnell has been leading the Republican effort to take away our voting rights,” and accusing McConnell of "blocking the ballot box and trying to silence our voices.” (The Senator has backed a national voter-ID law and supports felon disenfranchisement.) 

Grimes hasn’t quite embraced the Affordable Care Act, though she has mentioned McConnell’s desire to repeal it. “I think African-Americans, who are definitely pleased to have Obamacare, they’re giving her a pass on that,” said Dewey S. Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville. “They know she has to appeal to white voters.”

McConnell’s pleas to black voters largely haven’t mentioned his policy positions. “It’s been personal anecdotes,” said Clayton. “It’s not been, we agree with Senator McConnell wanting to repeal Obamacare.”

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Hamilton, the Metro council member, predicted that local judicial races, many of which feature black candidates, would also drive local turnout. Several Grimes backers pointed to the last mayoral race in Louisville in 2010, where the polls had Greg Fischer significantly down, only to see him win on the strength of black turnout. Still, that was just Louisville; there is white conservative rural Kentucky to contend with in a state-wide race.

And if the Bluegrass polls conducted in the final weeks of the campaign are any sign, Grimes can't necessarily take black support for granted. They show that white voters barely changed their mind on whether they had favorable or unfavorable impressions of Grimes and McConnell between late September and late October. But judging to what they told pollsters, in the same period black voters developed a much more negative opinion of Grimes in the same time -- she went from 73% of black voters having a favorable impression of her to only 59%. It's unclear whether that's because of Grimes refusing to say if she voted for Obama -- at 47%, black voters were likelier to say they didn't care if she said who she voted for -- but some ground seems to have shifted nonetheless. 

For his part, Yarmuth, cut a radio ad declaring, “I’m proud to support President Obama,” and mentioning “the entire Democratic ticket.”

Speaking with msnbc at Grimes’ final Louisville rally, Yarmuth was blunt about the intent of the ad. “I’ve been a proud supporter of his, so there’s no reason to try to back away from that,” he said of Obama. “And it was partially to kind of have Alison’s back with the African-American community.”