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Blue Kentucky Girl

June 25th, 2020, 8:55pm by Sam Wang

(updated to reflect a narrow win by Amy McGrath over Charles Booker in the Democratic primary)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made a successful career out of exploiting the rules of government. He is the single greatest architect of changes that move the U.S. away from democracy. But national Democrats and voting rights advocates have used their hearts rather than their heads to work against him.

This week’s primary election in Kentucky highlighted the lack of perspective. Out-of-state advocates focused on polling station scarcity, while ignoring the actual high turnout that occurred. Second, Democrats poured money into candidacy of Amy McGrath, who has come very close to not making it through the primary. A better strategy – one that would not have depended on who won the primary – would draw upon local factors, including what Kentuckians were actually thinking and doing.

Voting rights advocates claimed in Kentucky that voting might be suppressed by having a few polling stations open, one per county.* But they were confounded by what citizens ended up doing: voting by mail in enormous numbers. The biggest driver of voting was an agreement reached between Governor Andy Beshear (D) and Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) to expand mailing and early voting options. Indeed, 868,000 mail-in ballots were requested, and long waits at most polling stations failed to materialize. While final numbers are still a week away, turnout is estimated to be around 1.1 million so far, close to double the turnout in 2016, when both parties had a competitive Presidential primary. This is the same pattern as what happened in Wisconsin in April: fears of voter suppression and skulduggery, offset  (and more so) by unprecedented levels of absentee voting. So the first correct (and bipartisan) answer is safe mail-in voting.

(Note: for a great overview of lessons learned from primaries so far – and risks for November – see Michael Wines’s great article in the New York Times today.)

National Democrats also ran the risk of firing their ammunition prematurely in backing Amy McGrath for Senate. Opinion polls showed her doing well in a hypothetical November matchup against McConnell. A national darling because of her compelling life story and narrow House campaign loss in 2018, she raised $40 million, driven in large part by animosity towards McConnell. However, the story on the ground was more complicated. Progressive Charles Booker of Louisville, the youngest black state representative in the state, developed a broad coalition that included about half of the State Democratic House Caucus. His support included conservative rural Democrats like former Attorney General Greg Stumbo. His late surge has made it a very close race. Even if McGrath pulls it out, giving donations to her might have been a rash move.

Our Senate tracker has been scraping McGrath (D) vs. McConnell (R) data. If Booker’s lead (see AP vote tracker here) were to hold by next Tuesday once the votes are in, we would switch to Booker vs. McConnell data. Expect a sharp drop, since there’s only one such survey, and it shows McConnell up by 14 points. If Booker gets the nomination, we will see how that changes.

Another major development in Kentucky has gone mostly unremarked: re-enfranchisement of 170,000 ex-felons (about 6% of the voting population, and 26% of the black population). Quantitatively speaking, re-enfranchisement has the potential to be the biggest development affecting Mitch McConnell’s reelection prospects, and comes because of Governor Beshear’s win in 2019. Beshear campaigned in 2019 promising to restore voting rights to Kentuckians who had been convicted of felonies, but had served their time. Total voter turnout in Kentucky in the 2016 general election was 1.8 million people, so registering 170,000 men and women, nearly 10% of that number. If McGrath or Booker stays within 10 points of McConnell, a new infusion of voters could have a big impact on the 2020 Senate race.

In light of this all this, the most effective use of campaign dollars in Kentucky might be to fund the registration of re-enfranchised people. One organization is committed to that: Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. An inspirational figure like Charles Booker might be exactly what they need to drive their efforts forward.

To donate to Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and other key Senate races around the country, go to this site for Democrats (ActBlue). Republicans may go to this site (WinRed).

Additional research from Zachariah Sippy ’22, who is reporting from Kentucky.

*Voting rights in Kentucky still need to be improved. Under non-coronavirus conditions, Kentucky has not had no-excuse absentee or early voting. Polling hours are very short (6:00am-6:00pm). This year the state legislature passed a voter ID law over Beshear’s veto. In the two largest cities, in Louisville an injunction was required to keep the polls open, and in Lexington, where Zach Sippy is based, some waited for more than 90 minutes.

Tags: 2020 Election · Moneyball · Senate

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Charles H Coulston

    This is the article I would appreciate hearing on the radio or television compared to the sound bites that leave the hearer thinking KY participates in voter suppression. I have great hopes for the fall election when errors have been addressed.

  • MarkS

    McGrath has now won the primary. As far as I understand the data, the evidence is that McGrath is a stronger candidate in the general than Booker would have been. Her winning the primary is further confirmation of this. So I don’t understand the claim of “lack of perspective”.

  • Joseph Bland

    “A better strategy – one that would not have depended on who won the primary – would draw upon local factors, including what Kentuckians were actually thinking and doing.”

    I frankly don’t understand this comment. Until the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, Ms. McGrath appeared to have excellent momentum. National Democrats spending their money to support a candidate that, at the time, appeared to have a good chance of assisting in a huge upset win was a no-brainer. As a statistician, you must acknowledge that predicting what actually transpired would have been essentially impossible.

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