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Nuclear winter in Kentucky politics

First elected to the Senate three decades ago, McConnell clearly realizes he cannot win on the basis of his own low poll ratings. So he'll try to survive by running against Democratic politicians who, in this red state, may be even more unpopular.


Posted on May 23, 2014 at 2:57 p.m.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Anyone with a weak stomach and refined sensibilities should stay out of Kentucky for the next six months.

From the mountains to the gentle bluegrass, this normally civilized state was transformed on Tuesday night into the staging ground for a merciless war over everything that has gone wrong in American politics during the last five and a half years.

The books were not even closed on Tuesday's primary when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell let loose a volley of ridicule that gave a suburban hotel ballroom the feel of a testing ground for a new generation of political weaponry.

The more-feared-than-loved incumbent had just handily won a bitter Republican contest against Matt Bevin, a tea party candidate whose concession speech showed how bruised he felt after being run over by the McConnell machine.

McConnell laconically invited a round of applause for Bevin and then moved to his main purpose: treating Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic opponent, not as a person in her own right but as an agent for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

First elected to the Senate three decades ago, McConnell clearly realizes he cannot win on the basis of his own low poll ratings. So he'll try to survive by running against Democratic politicians who, in this red state, may be even more unpopular.

Thus his reduction of the 35-year-old Grimes to a cipher, the handmaiden to "every Hollywood liberal" who "is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be in this race."

But when Grimes spoke at her own primary victory party 75 miles away in Lexington, she was anything but a cipher. She was rousing in assailing McConnell but did not rise up in defense of either Obama or Reid. Indeed, she distanced herself from what she, sounding a McConnell theme, termed the president's "war on coal," coal being an issue with symbolic power here beyond its economic impact on the state's mining counties.

President Obama is not on "Kentucky's 2014 election ballot," she declared. But McConnell is, and the best way for Kentucky voters to express their dissatisfaction, she said, was to vote out "Senator Gridlock" and to put "people above partisanship." For good measure, she broached populist pro-labor themes, challenging McConnell for opposing a minimum wage increase and a bill on equal pay for women. She also denounced anti-union right-to-work laws being pushed here by Republicans.

On Wednesday morning, the state's airwaves were graced with an immediate exchange of ads, characteristic of each side's strategy. Pro-McConnell forces blanketed the state with an attack spot that reprised his election night themes and condemned Grimes as "too liberal for Kentucky."

Grimes went for a more subtle jibe with a 60-second spot in which she spoke directly to the camera. "It seems no matter how many elections we have, nothing gets better in Washington. It only gets worse," she said. "I approved this message because it's time Washington put the good of our people ahead of the bad that comes from acting petty and small. We've had too much of that for too long."

From all this, two conclusions are inescapable. The first is that — unfortunately for the Democrats — many of the 2014 contests that will decide which party controls the Senate next year are in Republican states such as this one (along with Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia).

The result will be an imbalanced argument. McConnell and other Republicans will go hard against Obama. Their Democratic opponents will run bank-shot campaigns, far less in support of the president than in opposition to the obstruction created by relentless Republican partisanship.

In Georgia on Tuesday night, Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who, like Grimes, has a real chance of grabbing a GOP seat, echoed Grimes' plea for more reasonableness in Washington. Nunn insisted that it's the "absolute failure to work together that's causing Washington to be so dysfunctional."

Well, yes. But you have to ask: Will calls for Washington's players to get along better have the same mobilizing power as blaming the whole mess on Obama? Kentucky Democrats hungry to oust McConnell seem to be rallying already. But what about elsewhere?

Which leads to a second, depressing conclusion: The backdrop of this election is a profound gloom about the state of our continuing national experiment in self-government. That's why politics here — but in many other places, too — is moving toward nuclear winter. Is it naive to ask if there is still a market somewhere for hope?

E.J. Dionne's email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.


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