LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After defeating Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, Kentucky Democrats now have their sights set on Mitch McConnell, who has become their party's public enemy No. 2, behind only President Donald Trump.
But they know ousting the Senate majority leader will be much tougher.
Bevin, whose inflammatory comments about teachers made him one of the most unpopular governors in the country, conceded the narrow election to Democrat Gov.-elect Andy Beshear this month after a weeklong protest of the results.
"This year, it was Matt Bevin. Next year, it'll be Mitch McConnell," tweeted Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot and 2018 congressional candidate who is McConnell's leading Democratic opponent.
Many Democrats loathe McConnell not only for what they charge is his complicity in enabling Trump, but for packing the judiciary with conservative judges, especially by blocking President Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and then ramming through Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Hillary Clinton in a recent speech accused the majority leader of "abdicating" his "responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution" by refusing to confront what she called "threats to the bedrock of our democracy" from Russian meddling to Trump's alleged abuses raised in the House's impeachment proceedings.
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro said Sunday while stumping for his presidential bid in Iowa that McConnell "has done as much or more damage than Donald Trump over the years to our democracy."
Republicans, however, are not breaking a sweat.
They look at the other results from the Nov. 5 election in Kentucky, when the GOP swept five other statewide offices besides governor, and the fact that Trump remains popular in a state he won by 30 percentage points. Republicans in Washington and Kentucky see few viable paths for McGrath to topple McConnell.
"There are a lot of positive takeaways from the election, and the environment is only going to improve in 2020 with President Trump on the ticket," said McConnell's campaign manager Kevin Golden.
They will grant McConnell is unpopular — the single least-liked senator in the country, according to Morning Consult polls — and they'll acknowledge McGrath is likely to raise more money, thanks to liberal donors across the country eager to defeat him.
So they'll spot her, say 45 percentage points. But the GOP says getting that last 5 percent will be nearly impossible. To date, there have been no independent polls of the matchup.
"The notion of getting pro-life Trump voters to support her is just a fantasy," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican operative and former George W. Bush aide. "But I suspect her consultants will all have six or seven wonderful beach houses when it’s all over."
Democrats don't claim it will be easy, but say they know what they're getting into and still see a way to win. One prominent Kentucky Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said he told McGrath she had a 10 to 15 percent chance of winning and she didn't dispute it.
"I'm not about to tell you this state is trending back Democratic," said McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas. "But (Beshear's) win was proof positive that our assessment was correct that this a winnable race."
The case against McConnell
Here's what Democrats have going for them: Money, a deeply unpopular opponent in an anti-incumbent moment, and the energy of the Trump-era left.
When McGrath declared her intention to challenge McConnell, money poured into her campaign at an unprecedented clip. She raised nearly $11 million in her first quarter in the race, more than the $7.5 million McConnell had raised all year.
"I think we will not only outraise McConnell, but give Beto a run for his money," Nickolas said, referring to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke's ultimately unsuccessful bid last year to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in which he raised over $80 million.
And they say Beshear's victory is further proof of Kentuckians' penchant for throwing out unpopular GOP incumbents, going back to Sen. Jim Bunning, who quit his re-election race in 2010 to endorse outsider Republican Rand Paul, and to Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who was defeated in 2007 by Beshear's father, Steve.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Washington say, if nothing else, there’s value to keeping the GOP Senate leader busy and forcing Republicans to divert money to the race.
The case for McConnell
But here's what Democrats have working against them: This is Kentucky we're talking about.
The commonwealth, like many Southern states, has a long history of voting Democratic in local and state races, but breaking for the GOP in federal races. And if anything, the state is trending more conservative as Democrats flee their former party.
Democrats controlled the state House of Representatives for 95 years until 2016. Now, Republicans have near super-majorities in both the state House and Senate. And while 12 of the past 15 governors were Democrats, the commonwealth hasn't elected a new Democratic senator since 1974.
McConnell's last re-election bid in 2014 also attracted national attention and liberal enthusiasm. But he went on to crush opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes by almost 16 percentage points.
And while Beshear was able to pick up support from Trump voters this year, the president will be on the ballot with McConnell next year.
That means, Democrats acknowledge, they'll need a not-insignificant chunk of voters to split their ticket — voting for a GOP president and a Democratic senator. And ticket-splitting is increasingly rare in politically polarized America. In 2016, every single state voted the same way for Senate and president for the first time ever.
That's why McGrath has sometimes tied herself in rhetorical knots by trying to drive a wedge between Trump and McConnell while remaining attractive to liberal online donors.
"Mitch McConnell is the epitome of a dysfunctional system, he created the swamp that Donald Trump said he was going to drain," she said on Seth Myers. "So that's my way there, that's my message: If you want to drain the swamp, you have to get rid of Mitch McConnell."
She made a major misstep out of the gate when she said this year that she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh — only to reverse herself hours later.
The move sparked outrage not only from fellow Democrats but raised concerns that McGrath was undermining her own credibility since she had slammed Kavanaugh last year and Republicans released a recording of her telling Boston donors, "I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky." (McGrath, in a response ad, called it "doctored audio," saying her comments were taken out of context and calling on McConnell to release the full recording, which has not yet been made public).
"I think she has let the national Democratic Party and the consultants consult her to death," said Matt Jones, a popular local radio and TV host who considered entering the race against McConnell as a Democrat before opting out last week.
Time for 'something different?'
In liberal Louisville, whose thriving restaurant scene and affordable cost of living have attracted expats from major cities, along with the upwardly mobile of rural Kentucky, antipathy toward McConnell abounds. But confidence about beating him is harder to find, even after Bevin's loss.
"I don’t know how much of a bellwether event the governor's losing was," said Marc Murphy, the former district attorney here who is now a trial lawyer and progressive editorial cartoonist for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The mood feels very different from, say, Portland, Maine, another left-wing island in a rural state, whose hipster coffee shops and localvore eateries are abuzz with talk of Republican Sen. Susan Collins' potential demise next year.
"It's going to be a long slog," said state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a young progressive who won her Louisville-area seat last year. "If Bevin had not continued to keep saying the stupid things he did, he might have won."
Charles Booker, Kentucky's youngest African American state representative, announced a week after the gubernatorial election that he is exploring a run against McConnell — a sign that some Kentucky Democrats are not sold on McGrath.
Booker, who grew up in the Louisville's poor, largely African American west side, has spoken about his struggles to afford insulin to treat his diabetes and told NBC News that Democrats need to assemble a "new coalition," instead of trying to keep playing it safe with the same playbook.
"There's a lot of people across Kentucky that are ready for something different if they just had the chance to know that it's possible,” Booker said. “Turnout is historically low in Kentucky and Kentucky's one of the most disenfranchised states. So you really have to engage people and build that infrastructure and inspire folks to do something different. And then they'll vote.”
He added, referring to the Senate major leader's opposition to action on climate change, "We know Mitch McConnell has hurt the whole nation and we realized that we'd be doing the whole nation — and in fact, the planet — a pretty good deed by getting rid of this guy."
CORRECTION (Nov. 25, 10:41 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee. He is Merrick Garland, not Meritt Garland.