Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the least popular politicians in the nation— and that’s not just a matter of opinion.
According to a 2019 Morning Consult survey, McConnell had a 50 percent disapproval rating with registered voters, the second highest after Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Yet just this past month, McConnell won his Senate race and another six years in office by a margin of 20 points. In doing so, he defeated Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, who had one of the most well-funded campaigns of the election cycle, in the most expensive race in Kentucky history.
This begs the question: why does such an unpopular politician defeat well-funded opponents with high electoral margins, cycle after cycle?
I argue that Kentucky voters continue to vote for McConnell because they prioritize the protection of Republican party and state interests over candidate favorability or undemocratic conduct. As a result, McConnell can get away with placing himself (and President Trump) above the law— insulating himself from media scrutiny, public backlash, and other forms of accountability.
Partisan interests largely explain McConnell’s electoral victories, and they particularly matter in a traditionally conservative state that Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016. Because the US is strongly divided along party lines, a phenomenon occurs in which people increasingly vote against opposing parties rather than for a specific candidate. In other words, the electorate may be willing to vote for an unfavorable candidate if it means defeating the opposing party. These trends are best exemplified by the highly contested 2016 presidential election, in which top contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both had historically low favorability ratings. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center found that negative sentiments about the opposing party are “as powerful, and in many cases more powerful, as are positive feelings about one’s own party.”
Accordingly, McConnell’s Senate victories could be more representative of the electorate’s opposition to the Democratic party, rather than support or favorability for the incumbent politician. This point is critical, because it might also explain why McGrath and other opponents keep losing. McGrath largely ran her campaign on being anti-McConnell, anti-corruption, and anti-obstruction. A quick look at her campaign website, and the name McConnell is mentioned at least a dozen times. Anchoring a campaign on “beating McConnell” was an ineffective strategy, not only because it came at the expense of advancing a clear policy agenda, but because it overlooked the reality that voters are increasingly motivated more by party interests than by candidate loyalty. As journalist Perry Bacon Jr. aptly writes, “I wonder if the structure of the state’s politics is leaving Kentuckians constantly stuck choosing between a Republican candidate they dislike and a Democrat they dislike even more.”
Additionally, as Graham and Svolik find in their research, public officials may be “effectively insulated from electoral sanction in states and districts where one party enjoys a significant electoral advantage” . According to this framework, McConnell isn’t punished at the voting booth when he disparages teacher unions, lifts sanctions on Russian oligarchs, blocks efforts to expand ballot access, or engages in other conventionally unfavorable or undemocratic conduct; rather, voters are more concerned with partisan interests than sanctioning McConnell’s behavior.
By the same token, McConnell lacks incentive to boost his popularity or favorability among constituents when they have little to no weight on his reelection prospects. The Kentucky senator is indifferent to his own low approval ratings, once stating, “I think the so-called approval rating statistic is vastly overrated as a measure of whether or not you are an effective representative of your people.” He even openly embraces rather unflattering nicknames like the “Grim Reaper”, a title referring to the hundreds of bills he blocked in the Senate. Graham and Svolik argue that democracies are self-enforcing when politicians anticipate and respond to possible sanctioning from constituents; McConnell’s apathy towards these considerations marks a red flag for democratic erosion .
Voters are also incentivized to support McConnell because his leadership position in Washington provides material benefits and recognition for the state. As Senate Majority Leader, and subsequently as one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, McConnell has brought billions of dollars in Senate spending bills to Kentucky, which is one of the most dependent states on federal support. Just last December, McConnell brought $1 billion in federal spending and tax breaks. During a press conference, he pitched this advantage over McGrath, questioning: “In what way would Kentucky have been better off without any of these items that I put in the year-end spending bill?” Despite his dwindling popularity, McConnell makes a compelling electoral case for himself: Kentuckians benefit when he is in leadership. In fact, exit polls show that strong leadership was the most important candidate quality among 83 percent of McConnell voters.
Altogether, the fact that unpopular politicians like Mitch McConnell get reelected poses some crucial implications for scholars of democratic erosion. First, it points to an increasingly polarized nation where voters prioritize party and state interests over political integrity. It signals that some politicians, usually entrenched elites, are unwilling and unincentivized to increase their popular appeal. And finally, it reinforces dangerous myths that political elites are invincible and immune to challengers. Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 2020