A few moments ago I noticed a new PPP poll showing that Mitch McConnell seems to have been damaged significantly in his home state of Kentucky by the effort to repeal Obamacare. The number that caught my eye was that McConnell has an astonishing 74% disapproval rating with just 18% approving of his performance in office. A hypothetical Democrat beats him by 7 percentage points. But that only tells part of the story.
McConnell is down at 18% approval. But Trump has a 60% approval rating in the state. If voters are upset with McConnell’s dogged efforts to repeal Obamacare, why is Trump doing so well? Or is it that McConnell failed to repeal Obamacare? And Good Lord, how can Mitch McConnell have a 74% disapproval rating? Congressional leaders always have low approval. See Boehner, Pelosi, Gingrich, et al. But that’s nationally. They almost always maintain strong support in their own states or districts. After all, that’s how they keep getting reelected. This is just a snapshot long before McConnell will face reelection in 2020. But for now the poll shows McConnell trailing a Democratic opponent 37% to 44%.
To make sense of these numbers, let’s take stock of some key facts about Kentucky. Kentucky is a classic Trump state – Appalachian, a big coal industry, culturally it’s very much Trump country. Democrats have been struggling there for a quarter century. But there’s one big exception. When Obamacare was implemented, the state had a Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, who went all in with Obamacare. In Kentucky it’s called Kynect – an important counter-branding which has given it some distance from ‘Obamacare’. Lots of people were signed up and it’s quite popular. This poll has Kynect at 34% approve, 28% disapprove and 38% unsure. But when you look at the individual aspects of Kynect/Obamacare they’re quite popular, even in this very red state. Cutting Medicaid? 54% disapprove. The Trumpcare bill? 49% disapprove, only 27% approve. The kinds of coverage loss numbers would make repealing Kynect/Obamacare a challenge in Kentucky because unlike a lot red states Kentucky took full advantage of the opportunity to sign people up for health insurance coverage.
So what’s happening here? How is McConnell getting crushed by the impact of the repeal effort and Trump has a solid 60% approval?
This seems like an object lesson in the challenges facing many Republicans under Trump, especially when legislation fails and things get rough. McConnell appears to be getting hit badly on multiple fronts. He’s clearly taking a hit from those who opposed the effort to get rid of Kynect/Obamacare, a group which includes a lot of Republicans. But he’s also taking a big hit as the guy who failed to deliver repeal for Trump and the GOP. He’s getting it from both sides. The latter is intensified greatly by the fact that Trump has been repeatedly attacking McConnell and suggesting he should be replaced.
Remember, this is a very red and a very pro-Trump state. Trump had his 5th highest margin of any state in Kentucky – 62.52%. His ‘brand’ has been able to sail above his support for a bill that Kentuckians strongly opposed. This makes sense in a lot of ways. Trump is more a political brand than a set of policy proposals. And legislative leaders always take more hits for unpopular legislation. But it’s not hard to see an ominous pattern here for Republicans: Trump’s legislative failures end up causing negative responses on both sides of the political spectrum – both for what he was trying to accomplish and for having failed to accomplish it. Meanwhile, Trump’s reaction to these failures is often to attack the legislative leaders who carried the water for him in the first place. That is a rough combination.
Don’t get me wrong. McConnell isn’t up for reelection until 2020 and I do not expect him to lose. It’s a very Republican state and he’s a survivor. But 74% disapproval is an astonishing number for such a powerful congressional leader. The same pattern could undo others up for reelection in other states.