Control of the U.S. Senate is the most important prize at stake in this year's midterm elections. There are 36 Senate seats up for election – 21 are held by Democrats, 15 by Republicans.
The most hotly contested races are in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Iowa, Colorado and West Virginia, where Democrats are fighting to re-elect incumbents or hold on to long-held Democratic seats. But Democrats also have a chance to pick up two traditional Republican seats: most notably in Georgia, where Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn, the former CEO of Points of Light, an American nonprofit organization, is a strong contender to Republican candidate and former Dollar Stores CEO David Perdue. This is one race Republicans can't afford to lose. The other's Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the toughest political challenge of his life, up against Democratic candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
With McConnell's long tenure and leadership position in the Senate, you'd think he'd be impregnable. But that's not the case. In today's political climate, being a "political lifer" is no longer an advantage for anyone. Plus, many Kentuckians feel McConnell suffers the Eric Cantor disease: enjoying his leadership position so much he forgets the folks back home. Nationwide, President Obama's approval rating's at an all-time low, but it's still higher than McConnell's in Kentucky. "Thirty-five is my age," opponent Allison Grimes gleefully points out, "but it is also Mitch McConnell's approval rating."
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McConnell hasn't helped himself by running a gaffe-filled campaign. His first campaign ad featured a shot of McConnell cheering Duke University players in the 2010 NCAA championship. For Kentuckians, who have hated Duke ever since the Blue Devils beat out the Wildcats in the 1992 championship, that's like Israelis cheering for Hamas. Early on, the McConnell campaign attempted to dismiss Grimes as an "empty dress," or "Obama girl." That quickly backfired. Then McConnell stepped on his foot by insisting Congress could somehow repeal Obamacare, yet still leave in place Kentucky's hugely successful state exchange, called "Kynect." As they say in Kentucky, "that dog don't hunt." McConnell soon backed away from the claim.
Recently, McConnell may have dug his political grave even deeper, thanks to the audiotape, obtained by The Nation magazine, of McConnell's remarks to a "secret" Koch brothers gathering last Father's Day at the Ritz-Carlton resort in Orange County, California. First he sucked up to the Koch boys: "I want to start by thanking you, Charles and David, for the important work you're doing," he gushed. "I don't know where we'd be without you." Indeed, where would Republicans be without the $412 million the Koch brothers reportedly spent helping Republican candidates in 2012, and the $300 million they've vowed to spend in 2014?
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McConnell then promised the assembled billionaires that if Republicans took back the Senate and he were re-elected, he'd do everything possible to block the president's budget by attaching "riders" to eliminate funding for Obamacare, financial regulation laws and the entire Environmental Protection Agency – which, of course, regulates big polluters like Koch Industries.
And McConnell assured GOP fat cats that, under his leadership, the Senate would not take up any of those pesky Democratic proposals so anathema to the Kochs, like raising the minimum wage. As heard on the tape: "We're not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That's all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage." At the Ritz-Carlton, Charles and David Koch applauded that pledge. But it may not go over so well back in Kentucky, where 391,000 full-time workers struggle to get by on $7.25 an hour and where, according to the latest Courier-Journal poll, Kentuckians favor increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by a margin of 2-1, 61 percent to 32 percent.
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The Senate race in Kentucky is too close to call. But McConnell's defeat should be welcomed, not just by Democrats, but by anybody who wants to see Congress get back to work. Since he pledged in October 2010 that the No. 1 goal of Senate Republicans was to deny Barack Obama a second term, McConnell's been the single biggest obstacle to getting any major legislation, on any issue, through the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid blames him for leading 442 filibusters. We'd all be better off if McConnell left the Senate and became a lobbyist for the Koch brothers – which, in a way, he already is.