Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

CNN Poll: McConnell holds slim edge in biggest Senate race of 2014

By Mark Preston, CNN
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
  • Kentucky Senate race could determine balance of power in the Senate
  • It could also decide whether Mitch McConnell will be Senate majority leader
  • McConnell is running as an agent of change after 30 years in the Senate
  • Opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes is a rising star in the Democratic Party

Washington (CNN) -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell holds a slim four-point edge over his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in a new CNN/ORC International Poll of one of the most closely watched Senate races of 2014.

McConnell's 4-point advantage, 50%-46%, falls within the survey's 4-point sampling error, furthering emphasizing how close this Kentucky contest remains 62 days before Election Day. The outcome of this election may help decide control of the Senate, influence President Barack Obama's final two years in office and determine the political fate of Kentucky's longest-serving senator.

Data from the poll offers both hope and challenges for each candidate over the next two months, as outside groups and the individual candidates continue to pour millions of dollars into this race to try to influence Kentuckians on whom to support in November.

That sliver of persuadable voters might be as small as 19%, which is the number of people who said they "might change their mind." In contrast, 77% of those surveyed said they "made up their mind" about whom they will back in November.

Obama: 'Don't boo, vote'
Bernie Sanders runs to left of Clinton
McConnell crashes Tea Party

What might be a troubling data point for Grimes is the number of Democrats -- 16% -- who said they are supporting or leaning towards supporting McConnell.

"That 16% may not sound like much, but it's more than double the number of crossover votes that Grimes wins from Republicans," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "It's likely that there are some Democrats who think that their state is better off with a Kentuckian running the Senate rather than a Democrat who would rank at the very bottom in seniority."

And that is a main talking point for McConnell on the campaign trail, a senator who speaks about how he delivers for Kentuckians while maintaining conservative sensibilities. He also embraces his role as one of Obama's biggest critics, which in many ways is low-hanging fruit in a commonwealth that overwhelmingly disapproves of how the commander-in-chief is handling his job.

Obama has a 64% disapproval rating in the poll among all respondents, while only 29% approve of his stewardship of the country. The president's high disapproval rating is fueled in part by his policy on coal -- a major employer in parts of Kentucky. In fact, McConnell has a whopping 20% lead over Grimes in the east and a 28% lead over her in the west, the two coal-producing regions in the commonwealth. It is no surprise that Grimes has not embraced Obama, and has even chastised him publicly for his position on coal.

"She has made it quite clear where she stands on coal," said a Democratic strategist who spoke freely about the race on the condition of anonymity. "And she has a starkly different approach to Kentucky's coal industry than President Obama and some national Democrats."

What is troubling for McConnell is that despite being one of the most powerful Republicans in the nation, he is locked in a statistical tie with Grimes who holds a 10-point lead over McConnell in the Bluegrass region (anchored by the cities of Lexington and Frankfort), a 27-point lead over McConnell in the Jefferson County area (anchored by the city of Louisville), and an 8-point lead over McConnell in the suburbs of Louisville and Cincinnati.

The poll indicates a controversy that erupted Friday that forced McConnell's campaign manager to resign has not had a major impact on this race. Jesse Benton cut ties with the campaign as speculation swirled about his involvement in an unfolding corruption scandal related to then-Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 bid for president.

The bottom line for McConnell is that he is the No. 1 target of national Democrats. A Republican strategist acknowledged as much saying that Democratic leaders have framed this race to their donor base as an opportunity to defeat a major opponent to the Democratic agenda. National Democratic money will continue to flow into Kentucky.

Digging deeper into the data, there are no real surprises in terms of which candidate is winning traditional political demographic groups: McConnell has a 13% lead with men and is seen more favorably by voters who make $50,000 or more, while Grimes holds a seven-point lead with women and does better with voters making less than $50,000.

Democrats view the Kentucky Senate race twofold: an opportunity to defeat a Republican leader, a major symbolic victory that last occurred in 2004 when then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, was defeated by former Rep. John Thune; and more important for Democrats, the Kentucky race is a key part of the political beachhead needed to protect their vulnerable Senate majority in November.

For Republicans to take back control of the Senate floor and the committees that produce legislation and provide oversight of the Obama administration, the party needs a net gain of six seats -- a very doable task given the math and electoral map two months before Election Day, even though Democrats currently hold a 55-45 seat advantage in the chamber.

To start, Democrats need to defend 21 seats in November, while the GOP only needs to protect 15.

Take a closer look at the 36 Senate seats on the ballot this year and the news is even more disturbing for Democrats. At least three seats currently held by Democrats -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- are expected to be won by Republicans on November 4, according to the most recent CNN analysis of the 2014 midterm election. And of the six seats that CNN designated as "Up for Grabs," five are held by Democratic incumbents representing Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina.

At this time, Kentucky is the only GOP-held seat that CNN has placed in the "Up for Grabs" column.

So, while there are many competitive Senate races in this election, Kentucky is viewed as the premier contest heading into November.

The poll was conducted for CNN by ORC International, which interviewed 1,037 adult Americans, including 671 likely voters, by telephone between August 28 and September 1. The sampling error for results for likely voters is +/-4 percentage points.

After 30 years in Senate, McConnell runs as 'candidate of change'

Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Their approval rating is horrendous. They rarely get along or get anything done. So here's your chance to do something about it.
Here's CNN's take on the key races in the House and the Senate this midterm year -- along with the key gubernatorial races across the country.
Voters head to the polls over the coming months to choose their candidates for November's general election. Here's a look at who votes when
updated 6:27 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
President Obama is vowing to act on his own due to House inaction on immigration reform But there are limits to the power of his pen.
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The major story line so far in 2014 is the ongoing battle that pits mainstream Republicans against tea party and anti-establishment groups.
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
S. E. Cupp interviews Carly Fiorina about her effort to rally conservative female voters for Senate races.
Some Democrats say there may be a silver lining in the ruling: It could motivate younger women and unmarried women to show up at the polls come November.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The GOP establishment, incumbent and mainstream candidates scored big wins.
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
This California Republican's back story is full of plot twists.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
Why and how did a well-funded, powerful, conservative member of Congress lose to a political novice?
updated 3:44 PM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
President Obama's new rules aimed at dramatically limiting carbon pollution has been a policy priority of his and one that he hopes will help to shape his legacy.
updated 4:50 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, might not be the Republican Party's key to electoral victory as once thought.
updated 5:43 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
An advocacy group backed by hedge fund tycoon Tom Steyer is set to unleash a seven-state, $100 million offensive against GOP "science deniers."
Mitch McConnell mined decades of battle-hardened experience and carefully-tended relationships inside the GOP to win his primary.
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Fri May 16, 2014
Flooding the airwaves this election year are Democratic ads featuring two men not on any ballot, and not even politicians.
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
Taking a cue from Beyonce, House Democrats are targeting "all the single ladies" to try to win a few Republican-held seats.
A small edge right now in a key indicator of the midterm elections could lead to a big advantage for the Republicans come November.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to spend $50 million this year through a new organization called Everytown for Gun Safety.