Saturday, October 4, 2008

Mitch McConnell and the 24 year itch

Mitch McConnell and the 24 year itch

“Tell me you're trying to cure a seven-year ache
See what else your old heart can take.”

-Rosanne Cash

Kentucky Senator (and Republican Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell is in a tight race for re-election with challenger Bruce Lunsford.

If you look at history, that is not surprising.

McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984. He has been re-elected four times since then.

According to the classic political science book, U.S Senators and Their World, by Donald Matthews, it is harder for a Senator to get re-elected for a fourth or fifth term, than to be re-elected after one.

Matthews showed that 80% of all Senators got re-elected after one term, and that number increased to 84% for a second term and 88% for a third. The re-election odds drop to 57% for those seeking four or more terms.

Matthews wrote his book in 1960 but I doubt that the theory has changed.

I did a study of Matthew’s book when I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt. The logic is surprisingly simple. When someone has been in the Senate for 24 years or more, the group of supporters that first got them elected have died or lost interest in politics. Along the way, the Senator is building up enemies.

Enemies have longer memories. People might forget a favor but never forget something done to them.

Thus, human behavior favors a challenger.

The revenge factor is a problem for a candidate like McConnell. McConnell ran aggressive and polarizing campaigns in his four bids for Senate and in his earlier races for Jefferson County (Louisville) Judge Executive.

His elections were hotly contested, including a 1996 defeat of current Governor Steve Beshear. Thus, he has a sitting Governor waiting in line to take him down.

Unlike many other senators, McConnell has played an active role in Kentucky politics at every level. He was instrumental in electing former Governor Ernie Fletcher that cooled after Fletcher’s election.

The internal participation could benefit McConnell as he developed a strong group of allies but, going back to Matthew’s theory, McConnell’s involvement developed another group of enemies that could spring out if a challenger has a chance to defeat McConnell.

Matthews noted the blessing of seniority could also be a curse. Senators with increased seniority take on more responsibility and important assignments within the Senate.

Matthews said “in the vocabulary of social psychology, his ‘reference groups’ change, he becomes more concerned with Senate, national and international problems and devotes less time and attention to the ‘folks back home”.

McConnell is the Senate’s highest ranking Republican and a staple on the Washington Sunday morning talk shows. He has had to promote the political agenda of an unpopular president.

President Bush was an asset when McConnell ran for his fourth term in 2002. Bush was at his peak of popularity after September 11, 2001. McConnell was running against a relatively unknown challenger.

In 2008, the situation is different. John McCain, the Republican nominee, goes out of his way to differentiate himself from the President.

McConnell can’t “untie” his association with President Bush.

His role as Minority Leader does not give him personal political flexibility. A good example was Bush’s proposal for a $700 bailout for Wall Street.

McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Republican, Senator, Jim Bunning, took the politically popular position of opposing a bailout. Bunning had previously opposed President Bush’s selection of Alan Greenspan and later Ben Bernanke as Chairmen of the Federal Reserve Board. His opposition was consistent with his stated philosophy.

As Minority Leader, McConnell does not have the luxury of choosing philosophy over party.

The other reasons that Matthews cites, age and not spending time at home, don’t apply to McConnell. Only 66, McConnell works hard at staying in touch.

The next month will show whether McConnell can break the “four term curse.” Lunsford is not the strongest candidate the Democrats could have fielded. He has never held office and lost two consecutive bids for Governor.

Some of officeholders mentioned were Auditor Crit Luellan, former Attorney General Greg Stumbo, former Treasurer Jonathan Miller, current Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Governor Daniel Mongardo. All would have been strong candidates but only Lunsford answered the call.

According to the research of Professor Matthews, that call might result in Lunsford changing his name from Citizen Lunsford to Senator Lunsford.

Don McNay is the author of Son of a Son of a Gambler. You can read his award winning, syndicated column at or write to him at McNay is the Treasurer for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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