Is McConnell the new underdog?

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Republicans are buoyant they can capture the Senate this year — but will Mitch McConnell still be there as majority leader?

A surprising survey out of Kentucky this week underscores that the Senate minority leader is truly running the race of his life — and could even be the underdog heading into 2014.

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The Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for several local TV stations and newspapers, showed McConnell trailing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by four points, 46 percent to 42 percent. It’s the Kentucky secretary of State’s biggest lead yet and outside the poll’s margin of error.  

Maybe most troubling for the 29-year incumbent are his persistently low approval ratings — 60 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing in office — which make him as unpopular as Obama in the Bluegrass State. Fifty percent of Kentuckians also view McConnell unfavorably.

Part of McConnell’s problem lies in the fact that he’s fending off attacks from both his left and right flanks. With a primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin, he’s sustained attacks from conservative groups that have further dinged him along with hits from Democrats. 

And with his favorables so low, it’s difficult for him at this point to hammer Lundergan Grimes too hard or focus all his resources on her until he moves past the May primary. 

The new numbers turned heads in Bluegrass State political circles. Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky political reporter and University of Kentucky professor, said he was “surprised” to see McConnell’s favorability so low in the poll, noting the results show an exodus of one-time McConnell supporters he needs to recapture.

“The poll gives me the impression that she’s not driving her own numbers, that it’s McConnell that’s driving the numbers,” he said. "McConnell is on TV all the time. What people are seeing on TV appears to be driving his negatives up."

Cross also said Lundergan Grimes appears to be hitting an important measure by outperforming the Democratic base in the state, which typically has a ceiling of 42 percent-44 percent support.

Democrats are gleeful at the results. They say McConnell’s unpopularity makes it more difficult for the Republican to knock Lundergan Grimes for her connections to the president, and, as her spokeswoman Charly Norton put it, McConnell was wrong to “underestimate” the Democrat.

“Mitch McConnell made a fatal mistake by underestimating Alison since she got in the race,” she said. “They have no effective message against her. They tried to scare her out of the race claiming they were gonna play whack-a-mole, but she announced anyway. They claimed she wasn’t polished enough to be in the race, but she kicked it off with a huge rousing speech in July in front of 2,000 supporters. They claimed she didn’t have deep knowledge of the issues, but she’s the only candidate in the race with a jobs plan.”

Still, multiple aides and allies to McConnell said they have no plans to shift their strategy, emphasizing that with nine months to go it’s too early to press the panic button, especially with just a four-point race in one poll. 

“We feel very comfortable about where we are in this campaign and are excited to execute the plan we set in motion over a year ago.  We have every confidence that Sen. McConnell will be reelected in November,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said in an email to The Hill.

Justin Brasell, who ran McConnell’s reelection campaign in 2008, pointed to the mostly close polling throughout that race — and the ultimately comfortable win margin for the senator — as a reason not to worry about the new poll. 

“It was a tied race all the way to the end, all of the polls were within the margin of error, but at the end of the day, Sen. McConnell was able to pull ahead and win by six points,” he said.

Still, Democrats believe the tighter polling this time around indicate McConnell’s the most vulnerable he’s ever been and could finally be heading toward defeat.

But Billy Piper, a former McConnell chief of staff and political adviser, said the senator is running his current race with the last one in mind.

“The ’08 experience is fresh in his mind, which was a very competitive very hard-fought race. As soon as ’08 was over, we were assuming that ’14 was going to be a knock-down, drag-out race. None of this is unforeseen,” said Piper.

Scott Jennings, a former political adviser to McConnell who’s now lead adviser to the pro-McConnell super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said that, in the new poll, he doesn’t “see anything that tells me what I don’t know.”

But he also said the poll didn’t match up with other private polling he’s seen, an indication the public numbers might have caught McConnell’s supporters off-guard.

The survey, at the very least, had Team Mitch on defense, with aides and allies questioning the validity of the automated poll’s methodology and arguing that when they finally do get their message out, they’ll win on it.

Hunter Bates, McConnell’s former chief of staff, said the poll will have “absolutely no impact on strategy,” and said Lundergan Grimes “has been able to hide out for the first six months of the campaign, but will not be able to go another nine months without talking about important issues” like coal and the Keystone Pipeline.

Jennings said the reason voters are high on Lundergan Grimes right now is she hasn’t been fully introduced to them, but that both McConnell and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership will correct that as the race continues.

“Very few people know anything at all about Alison Lundergan Grimes, and when they find out about some of her positions, or inability to articulate a position, or unwillingness to share her position, you’re going to see her negatives go higher and higher,” he said.

The main reason McConnell and his supporters haven’t yet been able to hone in on Lundergan Grimes is because the incumbent has also been preoccupied with Bevin. The businessman’s primary campaign has been problematic for McConnell’s campaign on two levels: It’s drawn attention and resources from the general election contest, and it’s made it more difficult for McConnell to tout his work for the state and build a positive narrative around his candidacy.

McConnell’s been the subject of more than $1 million in attacks from Democratic and conservative groups, focused on his long tenure in office and what Democrats see as his failure to deliver for Kentucky.

In particular, conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives fund and FreedomWorks have spent more than $600,000 combined on TV ads and mailers charging McConnell hasn’t done enough to oppose Obama’s agenda and excessive government spending, or to dismantle ObamaCare. 

Those ads likely contributed to the 43 percent of conservatives in the Bluegrass Poll who disapprove of the job the senator is doing.

Piper said the primary has been an unwelcome distraction for McConnell, in that he has to “take care of these things in sequential order,” and the primary comes first.

And touting his seniority and the millions he’s brought back to Kentucky during his nearly three decades in office plays directly into the conservative criticism that he’s a creature of Washington and hasn’t done enough to slash budgets and oppose excessive government spending.

Cross pointed to McConnell’s first ad of the year, in which a Paducah energy worker touted McConnell’s work helping secure health benefits for him, as evidence the senator can make that case in a way that doesn’t necessarily feed into conservative attacks.

“We thought when earmarks were eliminated that he would no longer be able to run much on delivering for the state, but there are ways to deliver that are non-appropriations,” he said.

Voters can expect, Cross predicted, to see more stories like those from McConnell in the coming weeks.

And Bates indicated that emphasizing McConnell’s seniority and power in Congress would continue to be a focus of the senator’s reelection campaign.

“It will be nearly impossible for Grimes to convince voters in a midterm election to replace the most powerful senator in Kentucky history with a first-term foot soldier in the Reid-Obama army,” he said.

Still, the numbers aren’t welcome news for the Senate minority leader, and if they continue, as Norton put it, McConnell may have finally “met his match — and his replacement.”

--This post was updated at 1:28 p.m. on February 28 with a corrected quote from Cross.