Bluegrass Poll: Grimes leads GOP heavyweight McConnell in Senate race

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT/WYMT) - Despite being in a Republican fixture in Washington, Sen. Mitch McConnell is in a fierce uphill fight against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

A new Bluegrass Poll – conducted for WKYT-TV, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and WHAS-TV – found Grimes leading McConnell among registered Kentucky voters. Results show Grimes would win 46 percent of the vote compared to 42 percent for McConnell if the two face off against each other in the November general election.

McConnell’s first test will be in the May 20 Republican primary when he faces Matthew Bevin. With less than four months before the primary, the poll found McConnell (55 percent) with a comfortable lead over Bevin (29 percent) and with 15 percent of the registered Republican voters who were polled undecided.

Continuing debates over government shutdowns and health care initiatives could also be taking a toll on Kentucky’s senior senator’s standing. Exactly half of those polled say they have an unfavorable opinion of the senator while 27 percent said they have a favorable opinion. The remaining quarter of respondents say they’re neutral or have no opinion.

“This is further evidence that McConnell faces a serious challenge,” said WKYT political editor Bill Bryant. “McConnell and his team will be working to determine if it’s an anti-Washington scenario or if he needs to repair his relationship with Kentuckians.”

McConnell’s 1984 election to the U.S. Senate marked the first time a Republican won a statewide office in Kentucky since 1968. In 2006, Republicans elected him to be the their leader in the Senate.

“Often times they have a target on their backs because they serve in a leadership position,” said Bryant about how being a prominent Congressional leader also comes with a price. Bryant notes former Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle’s 2004 defeat -- which marked the first time in 52 years a Senate party leader lost a bid for reelection -- is evidence.

The poll also found more than a third (35 percent) of Republicans think McConnell has comprised too much with Democrats while on Capitol Hill. Thirty-two percent said McConnell’s actions were just right.

In 2010, Grimes made her first step into politics by entering the race to replace former Secretary of State Trey Grayson. She went on to beat Gov. Steve Beshear’s appointee to finish Grayson’s term in the Democratic primary and then soundly beat the Republican businessman Bill Johnson in the general election that focused highly on requiring photo IDs in order to vote.

Before politics, Grimes was a Lexington attorney.

While the Bluegrass Poll found Grimes in the lead over either a match-up with McConnell or Bevin, nearly half of those polled say they have a neutral or no opinion of Grimes. Respondents were evenly split over whether they have a favorable (26 percent) or unfavorable (27 percent) impression of her.

“Mitch McConnell continues to be very unpopular, across the board, across different demographic groups. His numbers are bad,” said The Herald-Leader political writer Sam Youngman. “The other thing that surprised me is that Alison Lundergan Grimes is an unknown right now. It's going to be a race to define who she is in the minds if Kentucky voters between her and Sen. McConnell. I think the winner of that race is the winner in November.”

In the general election match-up, the poll found McConnell has the support of conservatives and Grimes has the support of liberals. But Grimes outperforms McConnell 5:3 among moderates. McConnell’s strengths were also among eastern and western Kentucky voters while Grimes leads in greater Louisville and north central Kentucky.

“It’s expected that conservatives would back McConnell and liberals would back Grimes,” said Bryant. “The moderates are where Grimes is building up her campaign and are who might ultimately decide the election.”

For the poll, SurveyUSA interviewed 1,200 adults with home phones and cell phones between January 30 and Tuesday. Of the adults, 1,082 were registered to vote in the state with 404 being registered Republicans eligible to vote in the May Republican primary. Primary questions asked only of Republicans. Other questions were asked of all registered voters.

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