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ANALYSIS: Could Matt Jones Actually Beat Mitch McConnell? 

Matt Jones, host of Kentucky Sports Radio.
Tyler Franklin
Matt Jones, host of Kentucky Sports Radio.

Sports radio host Matt Jones would be a big underdog in a Senate race against Mitch McConnell. But he might have a better chance than Amy McGrath.

Jones announced on Thursday that he is forming an exploratory committee to consider a run against McConnell, but put off formally deciding if he will enter the race until after this November’s statewide elections in Kentucky. It’s likely that Jones will run if Kentucky Democrats strongly encourage his candidacy and therefore it seems he would defeat McGrath in next May’s Democratic primary. I expect he’ll back off if it’s clear McGrath is too strong of an opponent.

Jones’s potential candidacy raises three big questions:

  1. Would he actually win a primary against McGrath (and also longshot candidate Mike Broihier, who is, like McGrath, an ex-Marine?)
  2. Does Jones have a real shot of defeating McConnell in a general election?
  3. Even if Jones is a big underdog, would he be a stronger challenger to McConnell than McGrath?

These questions are very connected to one another, of course. Kentucky Democrats really hate McConnell, so they are likely to prioritize “electability” in a Senate Democratic primary, looking for the candidate who has the best chance to topple the incumbent. If Jones can present himself as the best candidate against McConnell, then I think he will be a strong contender in the primary.

So does Jones have a real shot of beating McConnell? Yes, but a fairly slim one. Jones’ biggest problem is the same as McGrath’s: he’s a Democrat.

In elections for state-based offices like governor or attorney general, Americans sometimes will vote for a candidate who isn’t from the party they generally align with (so Massachusetts has a Republican governor, Louisiana a Democratic one.) But an Andy Beshear victory in the governor’s race this November doesn’t necessarily portend Democrats beating McConnell in 2020. Why not? Because states increasingly back the same party for U.S. Senate and president. Kentucky leans conservative in federal elections (about 15 points to the right of the country) and President Donald Trump is popular here (61 percent approval, 35 percent disapproval, according to recent polling from the firm Civiqs).

Trump is likely to win by double digits in Kentucky in 2020, no matter who the Democrats nominate against him in the presidential election. McConnell is fairly unpopular (36 percent approve of him in Kentucky, 50 percent disapprove, per Morning Consult). But Trump has already endorsed the senator and I would expect the vast majority of the president’s backers to also vote for McConnell.

Duh, Kentucky is a red state you might say. But does Jones give Democrats a better chance than McGrath, even if that is a fairly small chance? I’m not sure, but I think so.

The results from McGrath’s 2018 House race are not promising for Democrats, in terms of projecting her statewide appeal. The former Marine fighter pilot won the two counties that include most of the cities of Frankfort and Lexington — and lost the 17 more rural ones in Kentucky’s Sixth District. Kentucky is one of the most rural states in the nation —a candidate who can only appeal to more urban voters will struggle to get elected statewide here. McGrath campaigned heavily in the rural areas in her district in 2018. But I suspect her biography (she is a pro-abortion rights Democrat who had bragged about how liberal she is and spent much of her adult life outside of Kentucky) limited her appeal to more conservative and rural voters, who may not have been as moved by McGrath’s military background as Democrats expected.

Jones is known to many Kentuckians because he talks about sports on TV and the radio — so his biography and identity probably seem less stereotypically liberal than many other Democrats. He has listeners in more rural areas of the state. He, at least at first glance, seems more likely than McGrath to not be dismissed by more conservative voters.

But I don’t want to overstate this case. McGrath ran a fairly strong campaign for the House. She has enough of a following in Kentucky and nationally to have raised $2.5 million in her first day as a candidate. Jones has never run for any elective office before. He could be a bad candidate, unable to speak about policy issues fluently. And once he is campaigning for the Senate, Jones will seem more like a traditional politician and lose some of his sports guy brand.

Jones has not detailed his positions yet. But if he enters the race, Democratic activists and the press are going to try to pin down Jones on a number of issues. Does Jones support the Green New Deal? How about Medicare-for-All? Would he embrace getting rid of the filibuster for legislation in the Senate? Does he consider Trump a racist or a white supremacist or neither? Does he think Trump should be impeached? What are his exact views on abortion? Answering all of those questions is likely to further box in Jones as politician — and some of his answers are likely to turn off the people who liked to hear him talk about sports.

I suspect that Jones will end up taking a bunch of left (but not very left) positions on the issues, while trying not to bash Trump too much (because he may need some Trump voters to win the general election.) In short, Jones could end up being another version of McGrath — a Lexington-area based Democrat who might have trouble appealing to the state’s more rural voters because he is both urban and fairly liberal, while also annoying the party’s liberal base by not taking on Trump aggressively enough.

My bottom line — the potential candidacy of Jones is a very interesting development. It seems like Jones, more so than any other Democrat in Kentucky, has the potential to get voters to think about voting for the person and not the party, because he would be such a non-traditional candidate. But I emphasize potential. Jones has to decide if he wants to join McGrath in what might be an ultimately futile enterprise — trying to win a Senate seat in Kentucky as a Democrat when Donald Trump is on the ballot.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him viaTwitter or e-mail.

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