How the Kentucky Senate Race Could Shape the Federal Judiciary

Dr. Lee Remington Williams is the Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Pre-Law Program Co-Director at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Williams secured her B.A. in History and Government from Morehead State University, her J.D. from the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, and her Ph.D. in Judicial Politics from the University of Kentucky. Currently, Williams resides in the Highlands area in Louisville with her husband Bill, and her sons Remi and Ross.

The Importance of Federal Judicial Openings

As part of the doctrine of checks and balances, the U.S. Constitution allows presidents to appoint federal judges with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.  From Marbury v. Madison to FDR’s “court-packing” plan, federal judgeships have been at the heart of many of our country’s political fights.

The political maneuvering over the make-up of the federal judiciary continues today.  The filibuster has historically been used to block federal court nominees (usually appellate nominees).  Through the years, both parties have filibustered judicial nominees they deem undesirable.  This tactical procedure has been criticized by both parties (but usually only when that party’s nominees were being filibustered).  This reluctant cycle came to an impasse last November when the Senate Democratic majority invoked the so-called “nuclear option” on certain judicial nominees, prohibiting Republican filibuster and calling for a simple majority vote.

Why do presidents and senators go to such great lengths to influence the make-up of federal judiciary?  In the aggregate, there is plenty of evidence showing how presidents can impact judicial policy through their federal court nominees, especially since those judges have lifetime appointments. The more federal judge positions presidents fill, the more lasting impact presidents have upon policy.  It is no surprise then that presidents attempt to choose judges who share the president’s views.

Senatorial Influence upon the Federal Judiciary

Over time, presidents and senators established a method of choosing desirable federal court candidates through a tradition known as “senatorial courtesy”. Senatorial courtesy refers to a tradition of deference whereby the president (and Senate) will defer to the recommendation of (usually senior) senators from the President’s party within the state when there is a judicial opening (usually district court).  For example, if there is a federal district court opening in Vermont, President Obama would defer to the recommendation of Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, and the Senate would traditionally approve the nominee as a “courtesy.”  (Note that this usually only applies when the senator is of the same political party as the president.  However, the contentious nature of the political environment today has resulted in some strange bedfellows in order to get certain nominees through.)

What about individual nominations?  How much impact could a Senator’s recommendation for one federal district court judgeship really have upon policy?

Kentucky offers a good example of such an impact, though perhaps not the impact that the recommending Senator originally envisioned.  In 1992, a federal judgeship opened in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.  Pursuant to senatorial courtesy, then-President George H.W. Bush deferred to the recommendation of the senator from his own party in that state, Senator Mitch McConnell.  McConnell, the former Jefferson County (Kentucky) Judge-Executive, recommended his former Special Counsel to that office, John G. Heyburn II.

Over the years, Heyburn has garnered a reputation as a moderately conservative judge.  Until this year, most would never have accused Judge Heyburn of being a “liberal” judge.  However, that all changed on February 12, 2014, when Heyburn ruled that the Commonwealth of Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.  Five months later, Heyburn extended this ruling, holding that Kentucky’s own same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.   In both decisions, Heyburn relied upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), where the Court declared that the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) defining marriage as between a woman and a man was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.  Judge Heyburn’s decisions have been appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers four states – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.  In each of these states, a federal judge has ruled in favor of marriage for same-sex couples (albeit under different legal doctrines).  The 6th Circuit heard oral arguments from all of these cases in August 2014 and a decision is expected to be issued at any time.  Yet, Heyburn is not alone.  Many other lower federal court judges, relying upon Windsor, have also overturned gay marriage amendments within their own states.

On October 6, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court denied seven cert petitions from five states, including Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Indiana, which sought review of rulings from the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits striking down bans on same-sex marriage.  By leaving these lower court decisions intact, the denial had the immediate effect of legalizing gay marriage within those states.  As it stands today, gay marriage is now completely legal in 32 states.  Three other states are subject to federal precedent paving the way toward gay marriage.  In eight more states, judges have issued rulings in favor of gay marriage, but these decisions are on hold pending appeal.  In Missouri, marriages of same-sex couples legally performed in other states are respected. Because Kentucky’s fate is up in the air pending the 6th Circuit’s decision, it remains one of the 18 states that do not allow gay marriage.  If Judge Heyburn’s decision is upheld, however, Kentucky will join the majority of states allowing such.

When it comes to the senator who recommended him, Heyburn’s gay marriage rulings have not gone unnoticed.  After Heyburn’s gay marriage decisions, the Senate Conservatives Fund released an ad attacking McConnell for recommending Heyburn to the bench.  The ad stated, “Senator McConnell should admit that recommending Judge Heyburn was a mistake that hurt Kentucky….McConnell knew Judge Heyburn was not a conservative, but he promoted him anyway. Now Judge Heyburn is forcing his liberal views on Kentucky”

The 2014 Kentucky Senate Race

It is evident that federal judicial positions are important, so important that legislators and presidents have been wrangling over them since our founding.  How much impact can one Senator have upon our judiciary and resulting judicial doctrines?  Think of it this way:  In each of the gay marriage cases above, many of the judges involved were put into those positions due to recommendations by senators under “senatorial courtesy.”  Long-serving senators will have more of an impact over time.  Further, if you live in a state where a senator is of the same party as the president for an extended period of time, and those presidents have the opportunity to fill numerous judicial openings, the impact of a recommending senator on judicial policy could be huge.

The 2014 Kentucky Senate race between Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell has become one of the most watched Senate races in this election cycle.  As the leading Senate Republican, McConnell would likely be Senate Majority Leader if the Republicans win back the Senate.  Despite his powerful position, however, McConnell appears to be running a tight race with Grimes, the current Kentucky Secretary of State.  The Kentucky race has been highlighted across numerous national news sources because of these factors, yet one rarely hears about the potential impact that either could have upon the federal judiciary.

Should Mitch McConnell win, his long-serving status could potentially aid him in nominating even more federal judges under senatorial courtesy, especially if a Republican were to win the presidency again.  Further, if the Republicans win the Senate this year and McConnell becomes Majority Leader, he would likely allow Republicans to filibuster the president’s federal court nominees.  On the other hand, if Grimes wins, President Obama would likely defer to her (as the only Democratic Senator from Kentucky) for any judicial nominations.  However, her lasting impact would be determined by whether the Republicans win the Senate.  If they do, there is no guarantee that other senators will continue to extend “senatorial courtesy” in this contentious political environment.  And should she win this election, but a Republican win the next presidential election, the president would defer to Rand Paul for nominees instead.

Unfortunately, voters rarely take the judiciary into account when deciding how to vote.  It is clear, however, that senators can have a lasting influence upon judicial policy in our country.  Thus, you may want to take into account these factors when deciding whether to vote for McConnell or Grimes in this upcoming election.


Why Should You Vote?

A recent article claims that turnout in the upcoming midterm elections this fall could be lower than the past two midterm elections, based on current voter engagement. This should be alarming considering voter turnout is already only around 40% among the voter eligible population. This predicted low level of voter turnout is based on the following three indicators of voter engagement in midterm elections: how much thought Americans have given to the elections, their expressed motivation to vote, and their enthusiasm about voting compared with past elections, which are all showing levels lower than past midterm elections. There is a positive correlation between greater voter engagement on these measures and higher voter turnout, thus predicting that fewer people will turn out to vote this November than did in 2006 or 2010 because these indicators are all lower than usual.

Why vote then? What incentive is there for Americans to turn out this November?

There are currently around 200 million Americans who are eligible to vote, only around 145 million of them are registered and of those 145 million only 131 million or so turned out to vote in the last Presidential election. We can expect significantly fewer (around 15-20%) people to turn out November 4th. People cite a number of reasons for not turning out to vote including being too busy or being uninterested. However, this is an incredibly important American right, one that everyone should be excited about since there are a number of countries that don’t have this right.

There are a number of other reasons to vote this coming election. Voting is a way to speak your mind and let your voice be heard. Voting is literally telling elected officials how you feel about important issues being debated. If that does not persuade you, know that there is power in numbers and when you vote you truly make a difference. Elections can bring to fruition incredible people; it was through elections that we voted in officials who were champions for civil rights. Our vote is our opportunity to make a different in our world.

Even though there are a number of reasons to care about elections, a huge portion of Americans STILL do not vote. So if the rest of America seems so uninterested in these midterm elections specifically then why should they matter to you?

On November 4th, Americans across the country will vote for 36 senators, 36 governors, and numerous policies. Eyes will be on the Senate races as the Republicans have a good chance (around 65%, depending on the poll that you’re looking at) of taking control from the Democrats, an issue particularly pertinent to Kentuckians who might be re-electing a Senator who could become the Senate Majority Leader.

Other than the Senate race, these midterm elections will cover marijuana legalization, abortion issues, and raising the minimum wage. Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota all have ballot initiatives that would raise the minimum wage in those states and all seem to have a good chance of passing. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. will vote to legalize marijuana while Florida will vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana. Colorado and North Dakota both have initiatives up for vote that, if passed, would legally define life as beginning before birth and would move the respective states’ right on abortion.

Thus, even if you do not care about the turnout of the McConnell/Grimes race, it is still important to care about these elections as is true of any elections. It is a fundamental right of Americans and one that citizens should be excited about exercising.

What Has Obama Done for McConnell?

A recent article from USA Today quotes Norman Orstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, contending that “McConnell has become much more a national figure as a consequence of the Obama presidency than if he had spent the last several years under a John McCain presidency or a Mitt Romney presidency.” Essentially, he claims that McConnell’s tenure in the Senate can be divided into two periods: before Barack Obama became president and after. When Obama’s presidency began in 2009, McConnell had the opportunity to define himself in stark contrast to the Democratic president. Obama became McConnell’s political target against which he could contrast his party’s views.

Throughout his campaign, McConnell has advertised that a vote for Grimes is a vote for Obama. In a state where the president’s approval rating is exceedingly low at a mere 32.8%, this claim can certainly adversely affect the chances of the Democratic candidate.

In a previous post, I discussed how midterm elections are often considered a referendum on the sitting president and his or her party’s performance. According to trends, the president’s party tends to lose seats in both houses of Congress and over the past 20 midterm elections the president’s party has lost an average of 3 seats in the Senate. A continuation of this pattern is likely what McConnell is hoping to see in two weeks. In order to become majority leader, McConnell will need to win re-election but also for the GOP to see a net gain of six seats in the Senate.

However, a recent poll found that McConnell leads by the slimmest of margins, pulling ahead 44-43 among likely voters, which contrasts strongly to other polling data that shows McConnell with a four point advantage. This recent polling information contains both good and bad news for both candidates but for Grimes. Steve Voss, a Political Science professor from the University of Kentucky says, “It is clear some portion of these people who dislike President Obama, nonetheless, are showing willingness to vote for her.” In short, some people are not necessarily buying McConnell’s argument that a vote for Grimes is a vote for Obama.

Although McConnell has created an image for himself as the anti-Obama, how much this will affect Grimes depends on how convincing the argument is that voting for Grimes is like voting for Obama. It is important to note that partisanship is the primary predictor of voting patterns in U.S. Senate races and for most Democrats, an association with Obama is not the worst thing. It would seem from recent polls that show McConnell and Grimes nearly head-to-head, that the Obama/Grimes argument may not be as convincing or as influential as McConnell might hope.

Undecided Voters and Vote Allocation: Where Do Their Votes Go?

In these last two weeks before the election, the Bluegrass Poll has Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes at a near even split of 44-43 in McConnell’s favor, though still within the margin of error.  As stated in previous posts where we discuss polling data, it should be noted that while this poll has the two candidates a single point apart, in the aggregate, compiled by Real Clear Politics, McConnell is at a +4. While McConnell may be ahead when looking at the aggregate polling, the question I want to explore is not which candidate polls better than the other, but rather to what end will those who have reported “undecided” make on this election. Luckily, there is research which aims at this question. With the most recent Bluegrass Poll, 8% of voters have claimed that they are “undecided” voters, and 10% of voters said that they might be willing to change their vote as the campaigning season comes to an end…so, lets see what effect this may have on the election.

One school of thought, says that the vote share of undecided voters goes against the incumbent, and the majority of the votes are cast for the challenger. This study, conducted by a private polling firm, suggests that it is the challenger who benefits from undecided voters, showing that when looking at 155 cases, 81% of the time the challenger ended up with a large allocation of votes from undecided voters. So, with that, can we chalk one up for Grimes? I would say that is not clearly the case. When looking at this study, we are not aware of what level of elections they used in their study (Local? State? National?), nor are we aware of whether these races were even competitive. In a race as close as the Bluegrass Poll is making the McConnell/Grimes race to be, I think I would like to know whether the 81% of cases where undecided voters placed a larger share of their vote for the challenger rather than the incumbent were from the election of the county jailer or for a competitive, national race. So, for Grimes, this certainly would make a great headline, but I am not convinced that this is enough evidence to support the claim entirely—we need a better study.


Luckily, we have just that. Aaron Blake of The Fix looks at the same question—where do the votes go when cast by undecided voters? Blake looks extensively at 25 competitive Senate races over the last four election seasons and sees that a larger portion of the vote share goes to the incumbent, not the challenger, when it comes to undecided voters.  He cites that only in 9 of 25 cases did challengers gain a larger vote share by undecided voters than the incumbent. Blake also shows that in his study, on Election Day, the average incumbent saw his/her vote share rise 2.5 points as compared to late polling data, and that challengers on average only saw a rise of 1.6 points. This would suggest that we would chalk one up for McConnell, but is that what will happen? While this study was communicated much more clearly than the previous, it still suggests that a good portion of the time challengers will be on the receiving end of undecided voters. Thus, I may give more support to this study and the previous, though I still would not say that the answer is conclusively that we chalk one up for McConnell when almost 40% of the time that may not be the answer (though, the fact that of the 25 studies never once did a challenger who polled behind the incumbent win the election certainly gives support for McConnell).

So, where does this leave us? It certainly leaves us on the fence about where the allocation of undecided voters will go, but there is one commonality found among both of these studies—it will more than likely not be the case that the 8% of undecided voters or 10% of those who said they would be willing to change their vote in the final weeks will split 50-50 for the candidates, as indicated by the Bluegrass Poll. Both of these studies show that there is generally an unequal divide among where undecided voters place their vote, and this could be quite an advantage in the race. Now the question we have to ask is this: will these undecided voters even show up to the polls? I guess we will find out come November 4th.

Loss of DSCC Funds May Lead to Greater Problem for Grimes than She Claims

Yesterday Kentucky was informed that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) would no longer be using funds to run television ads on behalf of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. This news was received at an interesting time, considering just last week was the first time since August that Grimes was polled ahead of Senator Mitch McConnell (though still within the margin of error). The question remains: why? And secondly, what effect will this have on the Grimes campaign?

One answer given by journalists as to why the DSCC will not be funding television ads on behalf of Grimes at the time is due to her answer during the KET debate Monday night where Grimes, once again, refused to say for whom she voted in 2008 and 2012. This news does not resonate well with Kentuckians, who have a deep dislike of President Obama, and perhaps the DSCC found this a good enough reason to pull out of the television wars wave between the candidates.

A second answer given is perhaps the DSCC has come to the conclusion that many others have said all along as a Democratic candidate runs against the five-term incumbent: Kentucky’s electorate is too set in its ways to move on partisanship at the national level. Chris Cilizza of the Washington post writes: “The reality of the Kentucky Senate Race is that the electorate is simply locked in, polarized to the point where persuadable voters are non-existent.” Thus, when your electorate has already made up its mind, as Cilizza has proposed, perhaps the DSCC has decided to move its efforts to races where the money poured into the race will have a greater effect.

A third answer, which ties in to the second, is that perhaps there has been a loss in confidence for Grimes’ campaign by the DSCC. This certainly would not bode well for her campaign if the DSCC came forth with that answer, and would perhaps even have a ripple effect on other large donors. The fact of the matter is that it is easy to get Grimes’ numbers in the upper 40s, but getting her over the 50% mark has proven to be much more of a difficult task in Kentucky. Perhaps the DSCC has seen just how hard this is, and thus has lost confidence in Grimes considering she has not polled over the 50% mark yet in this election, and there are fewer than three weeks to go.

While there are numerous reasons as to why the funding has been cut, the more important question is what effect this will have on Grimes’ campaign? The most obvious answer is that there will be one less group filling our television space with ads. John Sides of FiveThirtyEight writes that it is the volume of television ads which matters most, not the content. That means that it matters more about which candidate can outspend the other in television ads, so that they can fill more air space. So far, the DSCC has spent $2 million in Kentucky. While not all of that $2 million has gone to television ads, it can easily be guessed that a large amount of it probably did considering the cost of television advertisements. Putting this in to perspective, the latest released numbers on television advertising had Grimes spending $3.7 million in advertising, and McConnell at $8.1 million…thus, whatever portion of the $2 million that the DSCC was using to fund television ads on behalf of Grimes will greatly be missed as she continues to lag behind McConnell in advertising dollars.

What does Grimes think of all this? She says that “”[McConnell] can buy the airwaves, but he can’t buy the hearts and minds of Kentuckians.” While this may sound like a sufficient political response to the loss of funding, the reality is, that may just not be true. Historically, as Sides has argued, those challengers who can outspend the incumbent on a campaign by a very wide margin and those who can put up the dollars in advertising are the ones who are victorious. That is not to say that money guarantees a secure win, but it certainly improves a candidate’s chances of winning significantly, especially when there is a wide difference in spending and advertising between the two campaigns. Thus, Grimes may be in more trouble than she leads on if another source of revenue does not come to take the place of the DSCC television ads, and better yet, increase her dollars in advertising significantly to compare to McConnell.

Interpreting Grimes’ +2 Internal Poll and Bluegrass Poll Results

For the second time, Secretary of State Alison Grimes released internal polling information showing that she is two points ahead of Senator Mitch McConnell. Interestingly, in the same week, news broke out yesterday that for the first time since August, Grimes is also ahead two points in a Bluegrass Poll public poll. Is this a coincidence or not? For voters, this may be confusing, considering the last nine public polls have McConnell in the lead. Thus, in this post I want to look into two things: the significance of an internal poll, and the interpretation of the new public Bluegrass poll released yesterday.


Internal Polls

According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, public polls are generally more accurate than internal polls. Silver concludes that, generally, “when campaigns release internal polls to the public, their goal is usually not to provide the most accurate information, [but] they are most likely trying to create a favorable news narrative—and they may fiddle with these assumptions until they get the desired result.”  He goes on to say that while campaigns can spin polls just like any other organization, when numbers are released internally, it should perhaps be thought less as a scientific survey, and more of a set of talking points.

Consider, for example, a recent example of an internal poll published by Eric Cantor showing him having a 34 point lead over competitor David Brat. This is a strong example of how internal polls may not be accurate, considering Cantor was later defeated. Just as Silver says, many times internal polls should be thought of as the outlier, and not as representative as an aggregate of public polls.

So is that to say that internal polling shouldn’t be performed? Internal polling, though at times misleading to the public, does have benefits. For example, with internal polling, candidates are able to see how the public responds to the effectiveness of an advertisement. They can ask questions pertaining to the issue/ad itself, and see how separate demographics or regions respond. This is useful information to the campaign, itself. Thus, internal polling should not be dismissed, but when it is reported to the public, as said by Silver, take it as a talking point rather than a scientific survey.

Bluegrass Poll

With that preliminary knowledge on internal polls, what are voters supposed to think now that Grimes’ internal poll has her at +2 and the new Bluegrass Poll also has Grimes at +2? First and foremost, it should not be thought of as directly related Just as Silver says, there are generally different motivations when internal polls are released as opposed to public polls. Secondly, it should be noted that the Bluegrass Poll which has a Grimes lead is still within the margin of error. That is to say, there is a possibility that she is above McConnell, though it is not fully statistically supported, and therefore this could also mean that she is not in the lead and perhaps McConnell is. One of the largest misconceptions about this poll is that journalists are tweeting/emailing/facebooking that this poll shows +6 point swing from the last poll conducted in August. While the raw numbers may suggest this, when looking at the margin of error in both the polls, that statement very well may not be true. It is crucial that voters interpret the margin of error in these findings.

So what does this mean for the Grimes +2 internal poll right now and the new Bluegrass poll? It should be a place of discussion, but not a predictor of the outcome, considering McConnell is still averaging a +4.2 advantage overall in all public polls. While we cannot completely rule out that the internal survey results published by the Grimes campaign are correct, historically internal polls are unreliable as predictors of eventual election outcomes, especially when they conflict with the aggregate of other publicly released polling results. As for the Bluegrass poll, this should also be a point of discussion, but also not necessarily a predictor. Voters should have some skepticism with this poll until there are a series of other public polls predicting the same thing. As for now, McConnell has the overall advantage, and this one poll putting Grimes in the lead should not be enough to convince us that it represents a real trend in voter attitudes in Kentucky. More surveys will be needed to see whether this is a real shift in support toward Grimes or merely a statistical blip.

Who Should Kentuckians Elect (Partisan Differences Aside)?

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages that can be associated with each candidate winning the November election, but which candidate will be more advantageous for Kentuckians to elect (partisan differences aside)? In other words, who is likely to “bring more to the table” for Kentucky citizens over the next six years?

Imagine for a second that Mitch McConnell will be re-elected come November. In a previous post we discussed the incumbency advantage and what resources he has at his disposal to have a leg up on his competition. What would the advantages be of reelecting McConnell for Kentuckians? If the Republicans taken control of the Senate and McConnell becomes Senate Majority Leader there could be a number of positive repercussions. Just this week we wrote a post on Senate leadership and all that it entails. Kentuckians could significantly benefit from having a congressman pushing an agenda that seeks to maximize their interests. Another possible benefit from the reelection of McConnell would be his experience in the Senate. Knowing how an institution works and serving on committees pertinent to your voters, such as McConnell on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, is extremely attractive to voters. On the other hand, McConnell would not be a fresh face if reelected and would certainly continue to contribute to the highly disliked institution of Congress.

Now imagine that Alison Grimes is elected on the fourth of November, defeating six-time incumbent McConnell. What might this do for Kentuckians? For one thing, she would have a fresh face in the political institution to which so many Americans show vehement disapproval. Could fresh faces in individual positions create a fresh face for the institution? It is certainly possible. Another advantage of a Grimes victory would be her being considered less of a “political insider” and more relatable to the constituents who elected her. Being more relatable and seemingly closer to constituents is an appealing quality to voters. In comparison to McConnell, Grimes would not likely be immediately appointed to the most highly sought after committees. This is not to say that Grimes would be at a complete disadvantage in a predominantly incumbent-ridden Senate, the Democrats would likely see her election as a major victory and might do all that they can to satisfy Kentucky constituents in order to ensure a future of a Democratic seat in Kentucky. On the flip side, Grimes will not come into a prominent position of leadership and will thus be less likely to be able to push important issues to the forefront.

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to the election of each respective candidate outside of their policy preferences. However, it is difficult to choose which candidate would be more advantageous for Kentuckians to elect on a completely non-partisan, objective basis.

Interview with KET’s Renee Shaw on KY Senate Race

During the summer, we interviewed Renee Shaw of KET to ask for her input on aspects of the Kentucky Senate race. Shaw is the producer/managing editor and host of KET’s legislative coverage. In addition, she is a co-host of election night coverage for KET, and she is one of KET’s public affairs program producers. Shaw travels the state to moderate publicshaw issues forums, including political and state legislative matters, and is an award winning reporter and associate producer.

Below are selected questions from our interview. Please note that this was an interview from early August, so some polling data may have changed.

What do you believe is the most interesting thing about this campaign compared to any other campaigns?

For the first time we have a really competitive young woman who is running against a thirty year incumbent for an office and she is really showing that she’s a very credible, viable candidate. If you look at the latest Bluegrass poll that was taken during the first week of August, it shows that McConnell has a two point edge which was the first time we’ve seen that since the Bluegrass poll was taken in this U.S. Senate race, but it is still in the margin of error. So here we are almost mid-August and it seems to be as that this race is treading along pretty evenly and real competitively. And who would’ve thought two years ago that she would be a contender and it would be so tight for McConnell, and there’s lots of reasons for that. So I think that you take into account her age. This is the first time she’s run for a major federal office, she is already Secretary of State, and that is one statewide race she has already won, but we are talking about a major leap, and so for her to be this competitive shows she’s a credible candidate. She shows that with her advertising, with the Super PACS that are pulling in dollars and commercials for her, the fundraisers she is able to pull off, and the cash she has on hand—she is really giving Mitch McConnell a run for his money. I don’t think there has ever been a race like this in Kentucky’s modern history.

With the polling you talked about, do you find polls to be predictive at this point?

Well that’s what is interesting about polls, right? Are polls persuasive? Do they have any effect or impact on whether people actually vote the way that the poll is saying? And remember, these polls are a very small sample. I think this latest poll was maybe 900 people, that really was condensed down to 604, that is a very small sampling of the electorate. So, I don’t know if the poll is indicative of the final outcome. I think it does show the competitive nature of it, but I don’t think you can read too much into it. One because it’s a small sample size, there are many people who choose not to participate in polls, so that doesn’t necessarily give an accurate reflection of the electorate either, so we can’t read too much into that. I think that when they dissect those polls down and ask other questions about gender and other things, and they specifically target women, you might be able to get some insight. There was a presumption that Alison Lundergan Grimes was going to really appeal to female voters, and that this race might come down into the youth and the female vote, well what we saw in that last poll, if that is any true indication, it’s that the whole gender edge that she may have had is dissipating. That at the end of the day, and I think your research shows this, as well, women vote along ideology, they don’t vote just based on gender. I think that we might see that come to fruition when we have the November election. If she losses, there is going to be a lot of dissecting of how she lost and why she lost, and I do believe that the overestimation of that gender vote, or the female vote, could be a part of that equation.

Grimes said one of her number one issues is to create jobs in Kentucky. Do you think that is a viable issue to run off of, or are there other issues we need to address?

If you look at any poll anywhere or you ask anybody what is the number one thing on their mind, they are going to say its jobs, jobs, jobs. People are really worried about the economy, not just about whether they have a job, but whether they have a good paying job. And what contributes to that? Republicans will say that if we encourage the business climate that brings in new businesses or encourages entrepreneurship, then people will be better off. Democrats will say that it’s not just equalizing opportunities, but results, so therefore we should have higher minimum wage—you heard Alison Grimes say it’s not a minimum wage, it’s a living wage. Its redefining what minimum is and what livable is, and those can be two separate things, and so I think she is very smart to go right to the economic issues because that is what people care about. Now you can say, “I’m for jobs,” but who is against jobs? So then how do you define why I am for jobs and what makes me for jobs? It will be interesting to see if Grimes actually picks up the Affordable Care Act. Now we know she has distanced herself from President Obama, but if you think about the close to 500,000 Kentuckians who now have health insurance who did not prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, she could say that this may not be the best thing for everywhere else, but in Kentucky, our Governor and our state is making it work. So, she could flip that on its state. Now she probably won’t because still evokes the image of Obama and that whole system that we in Kentucky have vilified, but it will be interesting to see how she dissects that jobs issue. That is why she is talking about minimum wage and livable wage. Democrats from top to bottom think that wage issues and what they call ‘income inequality’ is one way to get at the middle class. If you look at wages since the last three decades, you’ll see that they are pretty much stagnated and that it is not keeping up with the cost of living. So if they can make that case that for the thirty years that Mitch McConnell has been in office that wages have not grown to keep pace with the economy, that could be persuasive.

One of the hardest things with challengers in general, not just Grimes, is that it is hard for them to say exactly what they will do to help Kentucky. Thus, largely what Grimes has said up until this point is what McConnell hasn’t done, rather than the specifics of what she will do. Do you think that Grimes will have to start talking specifics before November?

Absolutely.  At Fancy Farm she said that she would meet McConnell in debates, but if you’re going to be in a debate, you’re going to have to come with more than “he’s not doing” , you’re going to have to say what you’re going to do. And she has been pretty good at avoiding the press, and the press has made mention of that she doesn’t comment on things and avoids questions …you can do that, but now we are in August in this third and last leg, and it’s coming up on Labor Day. After Labor Day, it’s going to ramp up and she is going to have to start saying, “this is what I sand for”, “this is how I would change things”, “this is how I would do it”. It’s not going to be enough to say “he’s not doing it” and you not offer a better solution. That is what Democrats say about Obamacare. They slam Obamacare but they haven’t come up with viable solutions to repeal and replace. They talk about repeal and replace, but what does it look like? And so she can’t be one of those people. She is going to have to say, “well let’s repeals and replace him, but this is what you’re repealing and replacing it with, and that is me. I stand for A, B, C, D and E”. If she can’t do that, she will lose by a bigger percentage than people will predict.

Campaign Advertising: The Role of Radio Advertising

While during this election season we have undoubtedly seen an array of political yard signs and television advertisements, Kentucky has not been exposed to a high volume of campaign advertisements aired on the radio, thus far. When starting this blog, the only radio ad that came to mind was Secretary of State Alison Grimes’ “I have a message for President Obama” where she states her dissatisfaction with Obama’s EPA regulations that aired over the summer, and after doing research, it doesn’t look like Kentucky has been exposed to many other radio ads, at all. In this post, however, I will suggest that perhaps that is an area where Senator McConnell and Grimes should focus some of their efforts. I will answer the question of: what is the effectiveness of radio advertising in a campaign.

First, it is important to note that even with the rise of the digital age, a vast majority of Americans are still listening to AM/FM radio . Over the past ten years, the percentage of Americans listening to AM/FM radio has remained relatively unchanged (between 92% and 96% of Americans 12 and over). Interestingly, when looking at the top talk radio shows, Conservatives dominate. 24-TopTalkRadioHosts2011ComparedTo20104Below the Pew Excellence in Journalism project has taken Talkers Magazine’s listing of the top radio shows and listed only the political pundits for 2010 and 2011. Even in 2014 Conservatives are dominating the radio talk show game, with Rush Limbaugh now in first place, overall, but I chose to show this graphic because it specializes in political talk shows hosts, only. (Here you can find the 2014 listings, though not sorted)

Now that we know people are listening to the radio, we can explore the topic of radio advertising and its effectiveness. L. Marvin Overby and Jay Barth took on this task. According to their research, radio advertising differs from television advertising in one prominent way: narrowcasting. Overby and Barth explain that when it comes to television advertising, candidates are playing their ads to widespread audience. In radio advertising, however, you can narrow your audience, and cater your message for a certain demographic in particular area of the state. While you could do that with television ads, too, the difference in monetary spending for a television ad and radio ad can be substantial, and that is why, normally, television ads are played statewide, rather than regionally. Thus, at a much lesser cost, candidates can target specific audiences in specific areas of the state, and speak about issues that are most pertinent to that area, when using radio advertising as opposed to television advertising.

What does this suggest for Grimes and McConnell? It suggests that in this final sprint of the race, there is an effective way to meet a target audience without having to broadcast an advertisement statewide. Candidates have the ability to talk about single issues that affect different parts of the state, and leave out the rest, because voters take the greatest interest in issues affecting them the most. While in this past week McConnell and Grimes have each released new television ads that cost them six figures, this less expensive campaigning could be the way to reach those voters who feel like the candidates only talk about the big issues, and localize the campaign for target audiences. While I am not suggesting that they take dollars away from television advertising, because that, too, has proven to be effective for undecided voters, I am suggesting that the candidates take the time to realize the possibilities that radio advertising has to offer in a state like Kentucky.

What Does Senate Leadership Entail?

If the Republican Party takes the Senate and Mitch McConnell is elected for his seventh term as Senator, he will become the Senate Majority Leader. What will this mean for Kentucky? In other words, will it matter much for Kentucky voters if their senator is leader of the Senate, especially in these polarized times?

An academic article on leadership in the Senate states that it is a subtle and complicated matter that is incredibly difficult to understand.

First off, leadership in the Senate is highly situational, given the need to organize the Senate within the given limitations that are imposed by the Senate’s inherent structure. This structure awards leaders scarce formal institutional power. The next point the article makes about Senate leadership is that it is highly personalized and depends heavily on a senator’s personal style of leadership. Such examples of personal leadership style and the results are countless in the Senate, including famous examples such as how Robert C. Byrd (D.-WV) or Howard W. Baker (R.-TN) exerted their personal influence.

Effective performance of leadership is said to require skills of accommodation and empathy but not necessarily close personal friendships among senators. For example, Robert C. Byrd was applauded a number of times for his skills at accommodation and resolving conflict within the Senate but was also often said to be a “loner.” However, one day on the Senate floor he said, “I understand that I am not very well-liked around here anyhow. I did not get elected to be liked here. I got elected because I thought I could do a job.”

Another feature of leadership in the Senate is that it is partisan. Even though it can be said that everyone on Capitol Hill is a partisan, the leadership assumes a special structural and ideological responsibility. Post-WWII Senate leaders have tended to show higher levels of party loyalty on roll call votes than have rank-and-file members of the Senate (Patterson, 397). This might be seen as problematic but is nonetheless true.

Although Senate leaders are highly partisan, they also act as the middlemen for their respective political party. A mediating role of these leaders – that of a compromiser, negotiator, builder of partnerships – is central to the successfulness of Senate leadership.

What will a new leadership position mean if McConnell becomes Senate Majority Leader? It is hard to say. We might be able to create a parallel between this Senate leadership position and that of Eric Cantor as House Majority Leader. After careful research, we were able to determine that Cantor seemed to have lost touch with his constituency and thus no longer the best choice as a trustee representative for the 7th District of Virginia. We can speculate that something similar may occur and that a new leadership position will pull McConnell further from his constituency, but much of the position is how you decide to use it. On the other hand, McConnell could use the leadership role to institute positive change in the Senate all while promoting issues that are relevant to Kentuckians. It seems that leadership is what you make of the powers that you are allotted within the confines of Senate structure. As David Truman said, “Everyone knows something of leaders and leadership of various sorts but no one knows very much”.