It is possible — possible — that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could lose his bid for reelection next year. Two recent polls show his challenger in the lead. There are massive caveats to those numbers, but it's worth considering: What would a McConnell loss mean for the Republican Senate?
Here are the polls conducted since May, pitting McConnell against the likely Democratic candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes. The past two have shown Grimes with a slight lead.
So what if that holds? If McConnell doesn't make it back to the Senate, it poses two problems for the Republicans.
The first, and more significant one, is that the party becomes that much more unlikely to retake the body. According to analysis conducted by Nate Silver last month, the Republicans can bank on holding 48 seats after election day in 2014 — as can the Democrats. There are two dead heats: Arkansas and Louisiana, both currently Democratic seats. And, of course, a number of other closer races.
If the current polls were the results next November, the Republicans would probably end up holding 49 seats, excluding McConnell's. As we note in the caveats below, there is an enormous amount of time for those results to shift.
Including in the primary process. Over the past two senatorial election cycles, Republicans have faced unexpected primary challenges that have toppled party leaders' expected and preferred candidates: Joe Wilson, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin. None of those people won the general election. McConnell himself faces a long-shot-but-also-not-impossible opponent, Matt Bevin, in the Republican primary. (McDonnell leads by 40 points.) Another Senate stalwart, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham will likely also face a challenger, as Politico reports, Nancy Mace, a businesswoman and internet publisher. There has not yet been any polling on that match-up.
A McConnell loss would be more significant for Republicans in one other way: It would set off a leadership fight among their sitting senators. When McConnell was elected to lead the Republican minority after the retirement of Tennessee's Bill Frist, the vote was unanimous. His second-in-command, the Republican whip, has changed several times since, and is now John Cornyn of Texas. There is not always an easy transition from whip to party leader — and it seems likely that a party angry about its third-straight failure to retake the body, there would be a contested leadership battle. (Not to mention for a party that will likely still be split along ideological lines.)
But there are a lot of ifs — foremost among them, the caveats to those polls.
The first, as mentioned above, is that it is very, very early. It's also important to note that of the three recent polls, two were conducted by the candidates and the third by Public Policy Polling, a firm that FiveThirtyEight describes as "Democratic-leaning.". The candidate polls don't necessarily mean that they're weighted in a way to benefit the candidate, but it does mean that the releases are generally framed in a way that puts the candidate in the best light.
Take the poll released by the Grimes campaign yesterday. It trumpets that McConnell is much more unpopular at his job than Grimes is at hers.
While the Commonwealth's voters have net-positive views of Grimes’s performance as Secretary of State (33% positive, 29% negative), a large 58% majority give negative grades to McConnell for his performance in the US Senate. Just 38% offer positive evaluations of McConnell.
Then you do the addition. Ninety-six percent of voters have an opinion of McConnell. Only 62 percent have one of Grimes — meaning that more than a third of the state is waiting to learn more. And McConnell has 15 months in which to provide the background he desires.
The odds are very good that Mitch McConnell will by the senior senator from Kentucky until 2020 — which would let Reince Priebus and the leaders of the Republican Party breathe a huge sigh of relief.