Sam Youngman, a veteran political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, joined us on Political Wire's podcast for a fascinating look at Kentucky politics, including the Bluegrass State's marquee U.S. Senate race and Sen. Rand Paul's political aspirations.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Kentucky has turned sharply to the right after picking Bill Clinton twice for president. Based on President Obama's approval numbers, you wouldn't know that the Bluegrass State voted for Bill Clinton twice. The state's politics have changed dramatically, and not to Obama's benefit. "I look at his approval numbers, which are just terrible," Youngman said. The state continues to boast strong Democratic representation in state government, exhibits A and B being Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and Attorney General Jack Conway (D). But Republicans are hoping to poach the state House from Democrats for the first time since the 1920s. "We're still the only place in the South that has such a high Democratic registration, but I think it's deceiving," Youngman said. "We've moved further right over the last several years." The rightward swing may prove beneficial to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he seeks re-election again.
2. Despite its growing conservatism, Kentucky has been a huge success story for the Affordable Care Act. Some observers wonder whether the governor should avoid tying himself to ObamaCare too much as Kentucky continues to get redder. Beshear has had other ideas, embracing the law to the fullest. Between the expansion of Medicaid and the state's insurance exchange, the state has enrolled nearly half its uninsured population in the first enrollment period alone. Still, ObamaCare remains unpopular in the Bluegrass State. "I laugh sometimes because it's just so strange — a Democratic governor in a red state pushing this program," Youngman said. "Signing up half of Kentucky's 640,000 uninsured in the first enrollment period is really pretty impressive. It's a far better measurement than what the federal program has done, but it continues to be a problem for federal Democrats."
3. The U.S. Senate campaign of Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) isn't going as smoothly as you think. Conventional wisdom holds that Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, will give the vulnerable, unpopular McConnell, the run of his life. But Grimes' campaign actually has serious problems, Youngman argued. Not only has Grimes not provided many details on key policy positions and been relatively cautious about her views on health care reform. Her campaign also seems almost fully devoted to bashing McConnell, a strategy that will only go so far against her already unpopular opponent. "'I've honestly been completely baffled by it," Youngman said. The negative campaign may be good for driving down an opponent's numbers, Youngman said, but she's leaving herself vulnerable to being defined by her opponents before she can define herself. "At some point, she's gotta start thinking about how she's going to sell herself as viable alternative for Kentucky," Youngman said.
4. Obama and ObamaCare may pose problems for Grimes. It's no secret that President Obama is unpopular in the Bluegrass State. Naturally, that raises the question of whether Grimes wants the president to campaign for her. That's probably not a good idea, Youngman said. He likened the president to a Duke University basketball player who sank the University of Kentucky's NCAA basketball title hopes in 1992 by hitting a game-winning shot. "I think Christian Laettner would be more welcome here than President Obama," Youngman said. The other elephant in the room is ObamaCare. Grimes has remained relatively quiet on the issue, towing the "fix it, don't repeal it" line that Alex Sink (D) used in her unsuccessful Florida special congressional election bid, Youngman said. Needless to say, Grimes faces a dilemma on the health care law: "Democrats say the program is working, Governor Beshear's numbers are in the positive area, but Kentuckians still don't like ObamaCare."
5. Can Sen. Rand Paul unite the various factions of the GOP in 2016? Maybe. On the one hand, Paul is strongly conservative on fiscal issues, in line with conservatives in the Republican Party. On the other hand, his libertarian stances on social issues like marijuana and same-sex marriage may boost his appeal among younger, more moderate Republicans. Could he potentially unite these factions in the GOP, perhaps even bridging the establishment-tea party divide? His biggest challenge remains winning over the GOP's hawks, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). "The hawkish wing of the Republican Party despises Rand Paul....They don't understand his rapid ascent, they think he's a fraud, and they're not shy of letting people know that," Youngman said. Should Paul decide to pursue the presidency in 2016, the other potential roadblock for Paul would be the Iowa caucuses. Social conservatives, though slowly diminishing in influence in the GOP, still hold major clout in this first-in-the-nation caucus state, and they may resist Paul's socially libertarian leanings.
Listen to the whole conversation here: