E.J. Dionne Jr. / Prepare for nuclear winter, politically speaking

The Kentucky Senate race bodes ill for election 2014

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Anyone with a weak stomach and refined sensibilities should stay out of Kentucky for the next six months. From the mountains to the gentle bluegrass, this normally civilized state was transformed on Tuesday night into the staging ground for a merciless war over everything that has gone wrong in American politics.

The books were not even closed on Tuesday’s primary when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell loosed a volley of ridicule that gave a suburban hotel ballroom the feel of a testing ground for a new generation of political weaponry.

The more-feared-than-loved incumbent had just won a bitter Republican contest against Matt Bevin, a Tea Party candidate whose concession speech showed how bruised he felt after being run over by the McConnell machine. Mr. McConnell laconically invited applause for Mr. Bevin and then moved to his main purpose: treating Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic opponent, not as a person in her own right but as an agent for President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

First elected to the Senate three decades ago, Mr. McConnell realizes he cannot win on the basis of his low poll ratings. So he’ll try to survive by running against Democratic politicians who, in this red state, may be even more unpopular.

Thus his reduction of the 35-year-old Ms. Grimes to a cipher, the handmaiden to “every Hollywood liberal” who “is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be in this race.”

But when Ms. Grimes spoke at her own primary victory party 75 miles away in Lexington, she was anything but a cipher. She was assailed by Mr. McConnell but did not defend either Mr. Obama or Mr. Reid. Indeed, she distanced herself from what she, sounding a McConnell theme, termed the president’s “war on coal,” coal being an issue with symbolic power here beyond the state’s mining counties.

Mr. Obama is not on “Kentucky’s 2014 election ballot,” she declared. But Mr. McConnell is, and the best way for Kentucky voters to express their dissatisfaction, she said, was to vote out “Sen. Gridlock” and to put in “people above partisanship.” Then she broached populist pro-labor themes, challenging Mr. McConnell for opposing a minimum-wage increase and a bill on equal pay for women. She also denounced anti-union right-to-work laws being pushed by Republicans.

By Wednesday morning, the state’s airwaves were graced with an immediate exchange of ads. Pro-McConnell forces blanketed the state with an attack spot that condemned Ms. Grimes as “too liberal for Kentucky.” Ms. Grimes was more subtle with a 60-second spot in which she tells the camera, “It seems no matter how many elections we have, nothing gets better in Washington . . . I approved this message because it’s time Washington put the good of our people ahead of the bad that comes from acting petty and small. We’ve had too much of that for too long.”

From all this, two conclusions are inescapable. The first is that — unfortunately for Democrats — many of the 2014 contests that will decide which party controls the Senate next year are in Republican states such as this one (including Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia).

The result will be an imbalanced argument. Mr. McConnell and other Republicans will go hard against Mr. Obama. Their Democratic opponents will run bank-shot campaigns, far less in support of the president than in opposition to the obstruction created by relentless Republican partisanship.

In Georgia Tuesday night, Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who, like Ms. Grimes, has a real chance of grabbing a GOP seat, echoed Ms. Grimes’ plea for more reasonableness in Washington. Ms. Nunn insisted that it’s the “absolute failure to work together that’s causing Washington to be so dysfunctional.”

Well, yes. But will calls for Washington’s players to get along better have the same mobilizing power as blaming the whole mess on Barack Obama? Kentucky Democrats hungry to oust Mr. McConnell seem to be rallying already. But what about elsewhere?

Which leads to a second, depressing conclusion: The backdrop of this election is a profound gloom about the state of our national experiment in self-government. That’s why politics here — but in many other places, too — is moving toward nuclear winter. Is there still a market somewhere for hope?

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).


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