Kentucky voters followed pre-election polls, keeping Mitch McConnell in office and elected four Republicans and two Democrats to Congress. Now all of them must tackle the challenges facing the nation and the commonwealth.
At the downtown Louisville party for Kentucky Democrats, the most watched race was between Bruce Lunsford and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. In the weeks leading up to the election, polls showed Lunsford gaining on his powerful opponent. As the first election results came in from Eastern Kentucky, the two candidates were effectively tied. That’s when Lunsford spokesperson Cary Stemle said the campaign would need big gains in Lexington and Louisville.
“We’ll be watching very closely as we come to the middle of the state,” he said. “I think we need to be pretty far ahead to sustain that Western Kentucky surge that tends to happen for Republicans.”
But Lunsford didn’t get those numbers, and conceded the race shortly after 10:00.
“Lunsford just did not completely solve the problems that he has had with certain Democrats,” says Al Cross, Director of the Institute For Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime political writer. “Some of them simply don’t like him and won’t ever like him.”
Cross says Lunsford needed help appealing to Democrats, help that could have come from Barack Obama, who didn’t campaign in Kentucky.
“Obama wins friends about anywhere he goes, but he did not see Kentucky as a useful place to invest time. It would have taken many visits to the state to turn it around for him,” says Cross.
Obama won the election without Kentucky, and Cross says the decision to forego the state helped Senator Mitch McConnell win a fifth term. But Senior Brookings Institute Fellow Sarah Binder says McConnell will face challenges.
“He’s not nearly the firebrand conservative that many of his Republican colleagues are,” she says. “I think he’ll feel pressure from the right to redefine the conservative’s Republican label in the Senate and pull that core of Republicans further to the right.”
McConnell is the most powerful Republican in Congress, but he’ll be the most powerful Republican in Washington once Obama is in the White House. Binder says McConnell’s power may be diminished since the minority he leads is smaller, but he will still have significant control over shaping his party’s legislative strategy.
“A lot will depend on where President-elect Obama positions those policy priorities himself,” she says. “Does he go to the center of the spectrum and push proposals that could pick up bipartisan support, or does he veer farther to the left, putting Republicans on guard against cooperating?”
The Democrats weren’t without congressional victories on election night. Congresman John Yarmuth will return to Capitol Hill for a second term. In his victory speech, Yarmuth urged Democrats not to misuse their stronger majorities. Binder says this year’s Democratic victories are more of a referendum on the Bush administration than a mandate for the party, but legislators may not see it that way.
“House majority parties have never been very good about sharing power with minority party colleagues,” says Binder. When House Republicans took over the House in ’95, they were not very good about sharing power and we saw the same thing under speaker Pelosi.”
Binder says there are major economic issues the newly elected Congress and president must take on immediately. She says partisanship would likely make McConnell’s job of rebuilding his party easier. And that could lead to another shift in congressional power in 2010, when all of the House seats and 34 Senate positions are up for grabs.