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September 2, 2014

Posts in "The Midterm"

August 5, 2014

Rhetoric Overload, Four Decades After Nixon

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Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talks about his Russell Office that use to belong to Richard Nixon during an interview in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.

In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.

That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.

Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.

Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.

The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)

But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.

The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.

In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story

July 28, 2014

Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

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In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.

That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.

In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) Full story

July 23, 2014

Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

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Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.

The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.

This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.

The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story

July 14, 2014

Delayed Benghazi Hearings Equal Deliberate Quiet

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Gowdy is taking a prosecutorial approach as chairman of the special Benghazi committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?

Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.

The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.

For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.

Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.

Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.

Full story

July 11, 2014

Boehner’s Bet: Lawsuit Will Quiet Impeachment Calls

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Can Boehner’s lawsuit dampen calls for Obama impeachment? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

More seems curious than straightforward in Speaker John A. Boehner’s current plan for suing President Barack Obama.

But one of the easier things to understand is what the litigation might accomplish inside the House Republican Conference: a cooling of the intensifying and politically problematic talk about how nothing short of impeachment will do.

Legislation to authorize the lawsuit will get its first public hearing on July 16 at the Rules Committee. It’s on course for passage entirely along party lines in two weeks, just before the August recess begins. So it will be toward the end of September, just as Congress is preparing to decamp for the campaign trail, before the House’s lawyers actually take their complaint to the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

That means there’s almost no chance for even a preliminary resolution before the midterm elections. But the schedule will nonetheless provide the infuriated House Republicans several opportunities for venting their bloodlust this summer and fall.

Giving members of the GOP rank and file this way to focus their red meat rhetoric, and their appeals for donations from the hard right, could make calls for impeachment fade, if not quite disappear. And that is what Boehner has made clear he wants.

In this curious way, he is in the same place as his predecessor as speaker, with whom he sees eye-to-eye on next to nothing. Full story

July 10, 2014

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge Over Highway Cliff

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Lawmakers are still struggling with a long-term solution to fund transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.

The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.

The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.

Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story

July 8, 2014

Members in Waiting: The 20 Candidates Headed to D.C.

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Beyer is likely headed to Congress with little effort. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.

In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.

Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.

The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.

The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story

June 25, 2014

What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

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Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story

Democratic Doves, Threatened Incumbents Complicate President’s Choice on Military Action in Iraq

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Kirkpatrick is one of the Democrats for whom the Iraq funding vote could matter on Nov. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.

So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country.

During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq.

The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)

While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Full story

June 22, 2014

Two Powerful Old Bulls Trying for One Term Too Many?

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Rangel’s primary is looking similar to Cochran’s runoff election. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps never before have the people of Harlem and Hattiesburg, the Bronx and Biloxi participated in such a similar referendum on the same day.

But that’s what is happening Tuesday, when voters in a lopsidedly liberal section of New York City, and all across reliably conservative Mississippi, will answer the same question: Has an icon of the modern Congress overstayed his welcome?

Other storylines are getting at least as much attention as Thad Cochran battles for the Republican nomination for a seventh term in the Senate and as Charles B. Rangel goes after the Democratic nomination for a 23rd term in the House. Down South, the principal narrative is about whether the tea party’s top senatorial hopeful can win the movement’s most prominent challenge to the GOP establishment. Up North, the script is framed mainly as a tale about the gains of Latinos at the expense of African-Americans as players in urban Democratic politics.

The protagonists in both those versions of the stories are state senators. A runoff triumph by Chris McDaniel, who’s turning 42 on June 28 would give him a shot at becoming an anchor tenant in the confrontational wing of the Senate GOP Conference next year. (He’d still have to win a potentially competitive race against centrist former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers.) A primary win by 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat in New York would be tantamount to his election as the first Dominican-American in Congress.

As the final weekend began for both campaigns, the consensus view was that Cochran’s hold on his seat was tenuous while Rangel was looking to survive.

Victories by either McDaniel or Espaillat would put them among the trendsetters in relatively new aspects of American public life. In that sense they are similar to the veterans they’re seeking to take out — each of whom is emblematic of a congressional evolution that started in the 1970s.

Cochran’s election as the first Republican senator from Mississippi in 100 years heralded his party’s coming takeover of the South. Rangel was in the vanguard of Congressional Black Caucus members who avoided rhetorical outrage in favor of leadership connections and deal-cutting skills to achieve tangible results for their constituents. Full story

June 18, 2014

A Polarized Society as GOP Selects House Leaders

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During the government shutdown debate last fall, Scott Osberg of the District protested. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If midterm elections are all about mobilizing the base, then both parties can take heart in new research showing their bands of hard-core supporters have grown bigger and more hard-core than ever before.

And if members are looking for a new answer for all the criticism that Congress is more polarized and partisan than ever, the same study’s findings support a response that sounds something like this: We’re simply reflecting the intensifying attitudes of our own constituents, which is what we’re supposed to do in a representative democracy.

The study by the venerable Pew Research Center got less attention than it merited upon its release last week, even though the results helped explain the news story that pushed if off the front pages: Rep. Eric Cantor’s GOP primary upset in Virginia. Among the conclusions are that the electorate is more likely than ever to demand ideological consistency from a candidate, and the most ideological voters are also the most energized and likeliest to participate in primaries.

Plenty of other polls have pointed to the nation’s widening ideological divide, but Pew’s newest work is unusual in showing that split in lifestyle preferences as well as political choices. And the study is remarkable because it was based on a survey this winter of 10,000 Americans, or about 10 times the sample size of a typical poll.

Pew makes clear that partisanship is becoming ever more pervasive and entrenched among Democratic and Republican voters alike. But it’s the numbers describing the GOP electorate that have gained the closest scrutiny at the Capitol in the past week, by House Republicans pondering a refashioning of their leadership to better reflect their current positioning with supporters.

If California’s Kevin McCarthy is elected the new majority leader Thursday, as widely expected, then the Republican Conference will choose his successor as majority whip from three members representing different veins of congressional conservatism. It would be the first time the most confrontational rightward-thinking members, mostly elected in 2010 and 2012, have had a chance to install one of their favorites in the leadership triumvirate.

As evidence that it’s past time for them to have a seat at the senior table, this group can point to several Pew findings about two crucial and overlapping segments of the party base. That would be the 33 percent of Republicans who are the most engaged politically (because they almost always vote) and the 9 percent with views revealing themselves as the most consistently conservative. Full story

June 12, 2014

Cantor Had No Choice but to Step Aside After Defeat

It was impossible to imagine how Eric Cantor was going to remain House majority leader longer than a few more weeks. The biggest surprise is that he’s decided to hang on to his job title, if not really the job’s duties, until the end of July.

By getting soundly defeated in his Republican primary, Cantor made history as the most prominent member ever spurned by his own party for re-election. But that defeat transformed him on Wednesday into something much more immediately consequential: The most tangibly toothless person in the congressional leadership in more than a century.

Gaining the confidence of your party is the basic prerequisite for getting into the Hill hierarchy. Knowing where your caucus wants to be ideologically, and balancing that against where it needs to be, is a central requirement for staying on the leadership team. Making sure your colleagues remain beholden to you, legislatively and politically, is essential for success in the work — which can be described in blunt political terms as the daily gaining and spending of power.

For Cantor, all of that disappeared in a matter of hours on Tuesday, when his bid for an eighth term was rejected by 56 percent of the voters who had been his political base in central Virginia.

The comparison is far from perfect, but that was the closest thing American politics has seen in a long time to a parliamentary vote of no confidence. And when a prime minister is defeated in one of those, he is duty bound to offer his resignation.

A leader would be foolhardy to do otherwise, because such elections immediately drain the loser of every ounce of political capital. Full story

June 8, 2014

What Cochran Vs. Lott Said About Today’s GOP Civil War

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Cochran primary supporters in DeSoto County, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Last week marked only the second time in his life that Thad Cochran did not win an election outright.

The previous instance was 18 years ago this month, when he was defeated for Senate majority leader by Mississippi’s other Republican senator at the time, Trent Lott. That contest foreshadowed as clearly as anything the dire political predicament Cochran finds himself in now — just two weeks from a GOP primary runoff where state Sen. Chris McDaniel seems to have most everything going his way.

The outcome will decide more than whether Cochran is denied a seventh term. His defeat would guarantee that, come 2015, the chamber would have just two members who knew life in the Senate before Ronald Reagan was president. A McDaniel victory would allow the tea party movement to portray its confrontational style of conservatism as alive and well in the top tier of American politics.

And the only primary defeat of an incumbent senator this year would bring down the curtain on a fading era at the Capitol. Cochran was already an anomaly because he never wavered from the view that being urbane and soft-spoken in public, and collegial and collaborative behind the scenes, was the surest route to institutional success and job satisfaction. But that approach, of course, has almost entirely fallen out of fashion on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol — supplanted by a pathway in which partisan bombast and reflexive combativeness are rewarded while cordiality and thoughtfulness are ridiculed.

This shift in the congressional culture was given one of its first high-profile Senate displays in June 1996, when Bob Dole unexpectedly gave up the GOP floor leader’s job (along with his Kansas seat) to focus on his challenge to President Bill Clinton’s re-election. Full story

May 28, 2014

Political Typecasting on the Benghazi Panel

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Cummings will lead the special panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away, it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.

But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet.)

In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.

Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.

On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. Full story

May 22, 2014

Will the Kentucky Senate Race Be the Most Expensive Ever? Yep.

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The Kentucky Senate Race might be most expensive yet. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The figure has attained almost mythic status, but now it seems intuitively clear the number will come true: $100 million in spending on this year’s marquee Senate matchup in Kentucky, shattering the record for the most expensive congressional race in American history.

The explanations for such exorbitance have been well understood for a year. As the minority leader, Mitch McConnell would have no trouble raising whatever it took to dispatch his serious primary opponent and then wage an intense general election battle —mainly by running against President Barack Obama and virtually everything he stands for. Because she’s got by far the best takeover prospects of any Democratic Senate hopeful, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have no trouble raising whatever it takes to challenge the most influential, nationally polarizing Republican at the Capitol — in part by distancing herself from the president and his unpopular policies in the state.

And because control of the Senate for the next two years could very well hang in the balance, both national parties and legions of super PACs will spend whatever they can to tilt the outcome.

Kentucky, in other words, has always been first among equals on the roster of 2014 Senate battlegrounds. And, even as the roster of competitive contests has swelled past a dozen this spring, McConnell vs. Grimes showed no signs of yielding its status as the main event after Tuesday’s primary formalized their Nov. 4 matchup. (Averaging the four statewide polls in the past month, the most recent of which was last weekend, McConnell and Grimes are locked in a dead heat.)

Ahead of the primary, McConnell had raised $19.3 million, spending far more than half on television advertising and an elaborate get-out-the-vote precinct organization to secure his 60 percent of the Republican vote. Businessman Matt Bevin, who spent at least $4 million in hopes of engineering a tea party upset, drew just 35 percent.

While that was a trouncing by traditional measure, McConnell’s share of the vote was actually the smallest in a primary for any Kentucky senator seeking re-nomination since 1938. And Grimes, who faced only nominal opposition, was able to hold on to most of her war chest ($5 million in cash on hand on May 1) even while drawing about 95,000 more primary votes than McConnell. Full story

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