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First Thoughts: Sizing up the Bluegrass Battle

Sizing up the Bluegrass Battle… McConnell now will have to keep his eye on Kentucky instead of Washington… Focusing on the South in 2014… Will “Power Africa” be a lasting legacy for Obama?... What’s taking place in North Carolina has become the best political story few are talking about… Don’t forget about the recalls in Colorado… And Gabby Giffords continues on her tour to reduce gun violence. 

*** Sizing up the Bluegrass Battle: Well, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell now has a Democratic challenger, with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ announcement on Monday that she will run for the GOP leader’s Senate seat. And there are two forces at play that will make McConnell the favorite but that will also probably keep the race close. The first force: Kentucky is an overwhelmingly GOP-leaning state in federal contests, especially in the Obama Era. After all, President Obama won just 38% of the vote in the state last year, and Republicans are already tying Obama to Grimes. “Kentuckians have absolutely no reason to send Alison Lundergan Grimes to Washington to help pass the policies of a president whom they adamantly oppose,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement yesterday. And a pro-McConnell Super PAC has already been airing a TV ad making the same point. “Alison Grimes would stand with Obama, and that’s bad news for us.” (This is the exact opposite of what we saw in that Massachusetts Senate race, where Democrats hit Gabriel Gomez for not being close enough to Obama and the Democrats.) But here’s the second force at play: With just one exception (in 2002), McConnell has never won more than 55% in his Senate races in Kentucky. So bet on McConnell -- but also bet that the race is closer than you think.

*** McConnell will have to keep his eye on Kentucky instead of Washington: Given how close the race could be, perhaps the biggest result of Grimes’ decision to run is that McConnell will have to keep his eye on Kentucky over the next year and a half -- rather than keep his eye on the legislative activity in the Senate. Had Grimes NOT run (especially after Ashley Judd’s decision to pass on the race), Democrats would have been without a top-tier challenger, and that would have allowed McConnell to fully concentrate on Washington. Now he’s got to concentrate on Grimes and Kentucky. But the best news for McConnell right now: He doesn’t have a GOP primary challenge, and that’s very significant.

*** Focusing on the South in 2014: We have a final point to make about the McConnell-vs.-Grimes race: Much of the Senate action in 2014 will be taking place in the South -- or the states bordering it. Think Arkansas. Louisiana. North Carolina. West Virginia. Now Kentucky. And this is one of the reasons why Republicans have such a favorable map in 2014. But here’s the rub: Republicans HAVE to run the table in the South (as well as in Alaska and South Dakota) to be able to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the Senate. There’s no margin for error, unless the GOP can put Iowa and Montana in serious play.

*** Will “Power Africa” be a lasting legacy for Obama? A continent away, President Obama has departed Tanzania to head back to the United States -- after laying a wreath with George W. Bush at a memorial honoring those killed at a 1998 bombing at the U.S. embassy there, and after making remarks at a power plant. The success of Obama’s Africa trip won’t really be known for years. The centerpiece program Obama introduced, Power Africa, is a tangible idea that will be easy to track. If the lights are on in rural Africa in the next decade, Obama has his positive legacy. This is similar to Bush’s Africa legacy: It hasn’t been until the last few years (after Bush left office) that it’s been clear just how successful the PEPFAR program has been in helping this continent get control of the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

*** Sensitive to criticism, sensitive to focus on non-Africa matters: But also on this trip, there was something else just under the surface that was clearly detectable for longtime Obama watchers: The president is sensitive to the criticism that he hasn’t been as active publicly in Africa as Bush. Whenever he had the chance, Obama tried to deal with the veiled critique -- coming from Africans -- that he hasn’t been a strong partner with the continent. The president’s sensitivity carried over with the staff, as there were more than a few minor dust-ups between the traveling press and the traveling White House staff. They appeared frustrated that the coverage of this trip was overshadowed by so many outside forces like Mandela’s health or Edward Snowden. (An example: Obama came to chat with reporters on the plane, on the record, about Africa. But he was much less interested in talking when the conversation turned to Mandela.) Bottom line: The president wants a positive Africa legacy, and he knows he’s perceived to be late to the game (his original intent was to travel to Africa in 2011, but the budget fights changed those plans). So it makes him and the press staff extra sensitive to everything about this trip.

*** Carolina in my mind: Turning back to domestic politics… Writing for the Atlantic, David Graham makes a good argument that the best -- and most important -- political story that no one has probably heard about is taking place in North Carolina. In fact, Graham says that North Carolina has become the new Wisconsin. “Unlike the Madison contretemps, which centered around one major issue -- Gov. Scott Walker's drive to strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights, and protestors push to stop him -- the battle in North Carolina is more of a multifront war featuring a large number of skirmishes.” Those skirmishes include fights over unemployment benefits, taxes, education, and voting laws. Graham also observes, “Central to the push is Art Pope, a wealthy businessman and political benefactor who is sometimes described as North Carolina's answer to the Koch brothers, and whom McCrory appointed as state budget director. Pope and his associates spent $2.2 million in state races in the 2010 cycle alone, Jane Mayer reported in 2011.”

*** Total Recall: Speaking of comparisons to Wisconsin and underreported stories, don’t forget that this year could feature two recall races in Colorado -- over the gun-control legislation the state enacted. And Democrats are the target this time. As the Washington Times wrote last week, “A second Colorado recall drive fueled by a backlash against the state’s newly passed gun-control laws cleared its first hurdle Monday after the petition signatures were deemed sufficient to proceed. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced that proponents had submitted 12,648 valid signatures, or 1,363 more than the 11,285 signatures needed to force a recall election of Democratic state Sen. Angela Giron… The Giron effort represents the second Colorado recall to move forward this month. Last week, Mr. Gessler validated signatures in the drive to recall Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat.”

*** Giffords and Kelly continue on their tour: Lastly, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) and her husband Mark Kelly continue on their “Rights and Responsibilities Tour” to promote universal background checks. Today’s stop: Alaska (where the state’s Democratic senator, Mark Begich, voted against background checks). Giffords pens an op-ed in USA Today, writing: “We own guns, we use them and we treat them with great care. But when children are gunned down in their classrooms, when families are slaughtered at a movie theater, when a little girl dreaming of running for office is shot dead standing next to me in a grocery store parking lot, we have to admit what we're doing is not enough. We've all got to do more to reduce gun violence.”

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