Should Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell be worried about keeping his job?
Probably not—or at least, not as much as the Democrats would have you believe.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, faces some daunting numbers, to be sure. A recent Public Policy Polling survey shows that McConnell has an approval rating of 37 percent and a disapproval rating of 55 percent—making him, in terms of the like/don't like spread, the least popular senator in the firm's polling (PPP is a Democratic outfit, but notably was very accurate in its predictions of the presidential state-by-state results). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also points out that McConnell is running his first 2014 re-election campaign ad this week—a sign, 20 months before the election, that McConnell might be concerned about his future.
Approval ratings, first of all, are not the indicators they once were in politics. It used to be accepted political journalistic wisdom that if an incumbent's approval rating was below 50 percent, that official was in deep trouble for re-election. No more. Politicians in both parties are unpopular now, and the disapproval ratings often are reflections of public discontent with the system at large.
Secondly, approval ratings at this stage of the game are not necessarily indicative of a desire to oust a lawmaker. McConnell has no identified Democratic opponent yet—and if the best the Democrats can do is actress Ashley Judd, who has called Tennessee her home (and who represented Tennessee as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention), McConnell needn't spend too much money on defensive ads. New York might be OK with an out-of-state candidate (or evening a returning native) as a senator, but Kentuckians are more conservative. Hollywood doesn't impress them.
Voters are also not so quick to toss out a veteran who can bring money and other benefits to the state. True, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle suffered that fate in South Dakota, but he was a Democrat hanging on in what is still a pretty conservative state—certainly one automatically put in the red camp in presidential races. McConnell may be a public face of congressional dysfunction (not the only one, of course—and it's hardly limited to the GOP), but he is not swimming against a blue political tide in Kentucky. This is a Republican stronghold and a conservative one—a state that sent Rand Paul to the Senate in 2010. And former House Speaker Tom Foley also was ousted in 1994, but that was a GOP blood-letting the Democrats never saw coming and didn't prepare for. McConnell is preparing; his early ad merely shows he is smarter than the House Democrats were in 1994, or at least, that he has learned from their mistakes.
The public may be fed up enough with Congress as a whole that they will throw out a slew of incumbents in 2014. But McConnell won't be an easy target.