WASHINGTON ― Democrats’ narrow path to victory against unpopular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020 runs not through longshot appeals to rural voters the party has lost but through massive turnout in Kentucky’s deep and increasingly blue urban centers, the state’s only Democratic congressman told HuffPost in an interview this week.
“I would spend all my time [campaigning] in Louisville and Lexington,” Rep. John Yarmuth said. Kentucky’s two largest cities together are home to nearly a quarter of the state’s 4.5 million residents. Both have become reliable Democratic strongholds even as the state has become more and more red over the last two decades.
Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort, the state capital, are always a focus for Democratic candidates running statewide in Kentucky, where any hope for victory requires racking up big margins across the three cities and in a handful of smaller blue counties before holding on for dear life in the rural, GOP-heavy parts of the state.
But like many Democrats across the country, those candidates have also balanced their appeals to urban voters with attempts to woo back white, rural Kentuckians who’ve abandoned the party in droves as national Democrats have embraced more progressive positions on abortion, gun control, LGBTQ rights and other issues.
In Kentucky, those rural voters often take priority in the eyes of statewide candidates. In her 2014 Senate race against McConnell, for instance, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, refused to say whether she had voted for President Barack Obama, a widely derided attempt to avoid alienating some voters that instead dampened early enthusiasm for her campaign.
McConnell will enter the 2020 cycle as one of the least popular senators in the country, and his abysmal approval ratings in the Bluegrass State have tempted a number of potential challengers, including retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who raised more than $2 million in the first 24 hours after her campaign officially launched earlier this month. (Former Marine Mike Broihier and Steve Cox, a Louisville health care professional, have also entered the race.)
McGrath focused heavily on rural voters when she ran for a House seat in 2018 in a district that includes both Lexington and Frankfort but also a number of rural counties surrounding them. That strategy lifted her to an improbable primary victory, but she lost to Republican Rep. Andy Barr in the general election.
Her Senate campaign launched with a similar bent: In her first appearance on cable news after the launch, McGrath attempted to drive a wedge between McConnell and President Donald Trump, saying the senator had prevented the president from enacting parts of his agenda that rural Kentuckians supported. She also wavered on whether she would have voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, in what may have been an attempt to ingratiate herself to conservative anti-abortion voters in the state.
Meanwhile, McConnell had already used McGrath’s declarations that she is pro-choice and a progressive to brand her as too liberal for Kentucky.
But even in rural areas, Yarmuth said, McGrath and other McConnell opponents should focus on the few pockets of reliably Democratic voters.
“She spent a lot of money and time in those counties thinking that she could convert Republican votes, and she never did,” he said, of McGrath’s 2018 House race. And although Yarmuth agreed with that strategy at the time, he said, “that should be a lesson for her in a Senate race. She needs to spend her money where the gettable votes are, not thinking she can convert Republican votes.”
Democratic chances are still slim. McConnell’s ability to amass and hold onto political power in Washington has always outpaced his popularity back home, and no Democrat has come within 100,000 votes of beating him since 1990. Much of his unfavorability, meanwhile, comes from his right, a problem that may be ameliorated by Trump’s presence on the ballot, given that the president’s popularity in Kentucky dwarfs that of his senior Senate ally.
“I would say that if this were not a presidential year, Amy would be a favorite against Mitch,” Yarmuth said. “I think she can win, but with Trump on the ballot I don’t think she’s the favorite.”
Yarmuth has never seriously considered a statewide bid, he said, and he has no interest in running against McConnell. But he doesn’t think it’s impossible for a Democrat to knock off the state’s highest-profile politician.
“The people who’ve looked at it here have said, ‘A Democrat can win statewide, but it has to be a very surgical race,’” Yarmuth said. “And what they would say is, ‘You have to know exactly where your voters are, and you don’t waste any time on persuadables. You need to persuade the ones you know are going to vote for you [to] vote.’”
Trump’s reelection bid may further blunt Democratic efforts to reach rural voters who have traditionally supported them: In eastern Kentucky, where McConnell has at times struggled, the president is popular even among registered Democrats.
What may be a liability in the rural areas of the state could be a strength in its metropolitan areas, though. Trump may further hinder McConnell in Louisville and Lexington, where both are unpopular, and where Democrats have fared increasingly well in Senate, House, gubernatorial and presidential elections since McConnell launched his political career nearly four decades ago.
McConnell hasn’t won Jefferson or Fayette counties, in which Louisville and Lexington are located, respectively, since 2002, and the last time either went for a Republican presidential candidate was 2004.
Louisville, like many major metro areas, has become almost solidly blue over the last decade. Yarmuth, whose district encompasses almost the entirety of Louisville and Jefferson County, defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in 2006 and has not faced a serious challenge since. And in 2018, Louisville Democrats scored victories in city council and state legislative races even in the city’s more traditionally Republican-aligned areas.
Trump will lose both counties by large margins in 2020, and Democrats in those areas may be further energized by Kentucky’s 2019 statewide elections, in which the party has a chance to defeat firebrand conservative Gov. Matt Bevin, who is now considered the most unpopular governor in the country.
“Bevin is governor because Democrats didn’t turn out. Donald Trump is president because Democrats didn’t turn out in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” Yarmuth said. “To me, that’s where elections are won and lost now. It’s who comes out to vote.”