If there’s one thing that political pundits on the left and right can agree on, it’s that the 2020 elections are truly unique. You have an unconventional president seeking a second term in office, while the COVID-19 pandemic has upended all traditional notions of campaigning and voting.
“In a normal incumbent election, it’s about the incumbent – it’s the incumbent’s grade,” says Tres Watson, a Republican political strategist and founder of Capitol Reins PR. “Donald Trump, in everything that he does, is not the normal president, is not the normal politician and this is not the normal incumbency election.”
Democrat Colmon Elridge agrees. He says President Trump is the kind of politician that requires much from his supporters and his detractors. He contends Trump has created a climate for voters nationally that’s similar to what Kentuckians experienced under pugnacious former Gov. Matt Bevin.
“It’s about fatigue,” says Elridge, who was a senior advisor to former Gov. Steve Beshear. “There comes a point in the psyche of a voter that just says, ‘I’m exhausted.’”
Going into 2020, Trump had a strong economy going for him, but that changed when the coronavirus arrived and shut down America for months. Elridge says Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has had and continues to have a direct impact on the economy at the national and family levels. Even if voters liked the pre-COVID economy, they now see everything through a lens of what might happen next to their jobs, their incomes, their health, and their children’s ability to continue with school.
But the path to victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is also tricky, say Elridge and Watson. They say the former vice president must prove to voters that he’s the person who can address COVID, return the country to a sense of normalcy, and lead the economy back to full strength. They say even with all the financial worries facing the nation, many voters simply want to move past the partisan divisiveness and bickering of the past four years.
“If removing Donald Trump will fix it, then I think if people believe that they’ll vote against him,” says Watson.
“This is the part where boring is nice” says Elridge, and “civility is good.”
The U.S. Senate Race
Another marquee race on the ballot for Kentuckians is the race between incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Amy McGrath for the U.S. Senate. That contest also includes Libertarian candidate Brad Barron. Watson predicts another win for McConnell, who is seeking his seventh term in Washington. With the federal and state governments struggling under pandemic-related fiscal burdens, Watson says it would be unwise to replace the powerful Senate Majority Leader.
“At a time where federal funds are going to be scarcer and scarcer... we need somebody who has the clout and the power and the know-how of how to manage a federal budget system that Sen. McConnell has,” says Watson. “Even if you were to believe that Amy McGrath is better on the issues, it would still be voting against the better interests of the state overall to replace Sen. McConnell with her right now.”
A recent Mason-Dixon Poll has McConnell up 9 points over McGrath, but Watson says he expects the margin to be in the low double-digits. He credits McGrath with a strong debate performance in the only joint appearance between the two candidates, but he says the Democrat found her footing too late in the game.
Elridge says he thought McConnell was nervous and unfocused during the debate. He says the senator is guilty of enabling the worst traits of President Trump, while failing to protect the interests of Kentuckians by opposing another pandemic relief package
“He, for all of maybe the good he has done, has... shown himself to be I think the worst kind of Washington creature,” says Elridge. “His comfort level is Washington, not Kentucky.”
While McConnell likes to tout his power as Senate Majority Leader, Elridge says a Senator McGrath would not be totally powerless should she win the race. He says a new Democratic majority in the Senate would richly reward the former Marine Corps fighter pilot for defeating McConnell.
6th Congressional District Contest
Another closely watched race is in the state’s 6th Congressional district, which comprises 19 central and eastern Kentucky counties and includes the cities of Frankfort, Lexington, and Richmond. U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican, is seeking his fifth term in Congress. He faces Democrat Josh Hicks, a Lexington attorney and former Marine, and Libertarian Frank Harris.
Elridge says Barr’s previous victories haven’t depended so much on GOP votes but on conservative Democrats who crossed over to vote for the Republican. But he says he’s hearing from those Democrats who now say they’re likely to vote for Hicks because of his family farm roots and his experience as a veteran and former police officer. Elridge also praises Hicks for his focused and consistent messaging, and for counter-punching against every attack coming from Barr’s campaign.
“If you look at how pointed and vicious the Barr attack ads have gotten, they’re worried about Josh Hicks and that means I think Hicks is doing his job,” says Elridge. “This is maybe a sleeper race that we may be surprised by on Election Day.”
Watson says Barr will benefit from having the presidential and senate races to drive Republican turnout in the district. He says he thinks Barr was at greater risk of defeat in 2018 when he faced Amy McGrath. He says the conservative vote in the district’s rural counties can overcome high Democratic turnout in Fayette County.
“In  I thought if Barr was down more than 10,000 [votes] coming out of Fayette County, he was in serious trouble,” says Watson. “He lost Fayette County by 25,000 and he still carried the district… The numbers just aren’t there for that district to flip this year.”
Watson says another protection for Barr in close races is his reputation for excellent constituent services.