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It's More Than Coal: Why President Obama's Skin Color Is Deciding Kentucky's Senate Race

If the new NBC/Marist poll is right, most Kentuckians evidently don’t care how cozy Sen. Mitch McConnell is with the Koch brothers or that his ex-campaign manager quit because it looks like he might be involved in a seamy political bribery scandal in Iowa.

Among likely voters, the survey has the senate majority leader wannabe up 47-39 over Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic challenger. Libertarian David Patterson is at 8 percent in the poll.

Okay, this is where candidates trailing in the polls – and their supporters – say the polls are wrong and that the only poll that counts is the one on election day.

Of course, voters have proved polls wrong. They might do it again on Nov. 4.

However, the NBC/Marist poll comes after two other recent surveys that showed McConnell with leads among likely voters – 47-45 in a Survey USA Bluegrass Poll and 50-46 in a CNN/ORC International poll. Both spreads were within the surveys’ margin of error.

The Bluegrass poll was taken before The Nation magazine released an audiotape of McConnell fawning over big bucks Republican donors at a secret strategy meeting in California hosted by the Koch sibs. The CNN poll came after the cash fest and post Jesse Benton resigning.

More than a few Bluegrass State Democrats expected – or at least hoped – that subsequent surveys would break Grimes’ way over the Koch conclave and Benton’s retreat. 

The NBC/Marist poll showed that Kentuckians still view McConnell unfavorably by a 48-45 margin. They see Grimes pretty much the same way – 43 percent unfavorable, 41 percent favorable.

But in the polls, McConnell is winning where it counts, in the head-to-head matchup. That’s more proof that Team Mitch is succeeding in making the election a referendum on President Obama.

Obama lost Kentucky, big-time in 2008 and 2012. Today, Kentuckians disapprove of his job as president by 64-29 in the CNN/ORC poll.

Grimes is trying to get Kentuckians see the election as between McConnell and her.  She has distanced herself from the president, especially on coal.

“I don’t think that’s working,” said a veteran western Kentucky Democrat who is for Grimes. “McConnell keeps saying ‘Grimes-Obama, Grimes-Obama, Grimes-Obama.’ That’s what people are listening to.”

He didn’t say what “people.” He meant white people, who make up almost 92 percent of Kentucky’s population. 

I’m not for a minute saying everybody who is against the president and for McConnell is a racist. Neither would Obama or Grimes.

But a lot of white people don’t like Obama because he’s not white. Racism is the elephant in the room in homes from Paducah to Pikeville.

A lot of reporters choose to ignore the pachyderm. “The president's high disapproval rating is fueled in part by his policy on coal — a major employer in parts of Kentucky,” wrote CNN’s Mark Preston in crunching the CNN/ORC numbers.

David Hawpe sees the elephant if Preston doesn’t or doesn’t want to. “It’s not just a coal thing,” Hawpe, the former Louisville Courier-Journal editorial page editor, wrote in The Lexington Herald-Leader after Mitt Romney blew out Obama in the Bluegrass State going on two years ago. “Nor is it just about Kentucky's religious, conservative, rural values.”

Hawpe concluded, “Nobody wants to say it out loud, but race is part of the political equation, in Kentucky and elsewhere. We're not post-racial, yet.”   

To be sure, few white people will admit to reporters that they hate Obama because he’s black. Even so, GOP bigwigs are clued in.

“We are still a racist state, I hate to admit,” an unnamed Republican strategist confessed to Politico’s Jason Zingerle a few months ago when the McConnell campaign was cranking up. “Anything you can connect to Barack Obama is a winning thing for us.”

Hawpe, an eastern Kentucky native, zeroed in on the Bluegrass State neck of the woods where I was born, reared and still live: “McConnell used the GOP Southern strategy handed to him by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, took Western Kentucky away from the Democrats, and changed the state's political personality.”

Hawpe quoted GOP operative Kevin Phillips’ famous explanation of the Southern Strategy that The New York Times published in 1970: “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that .... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

Democrat Obama’s moderate politics is pretty close to Democrat Bill Clinton’s. But Kentuckians are favorably impressed with the white guy from Arkansas by a margin of 61-35, according to the NBC/Marist Poll.

Meanwhile, the poll also showed that anything that just has Obama’s name on it is poison in Kentucky. Kentuckians don’t like “Obamacare” — McConnell’s slam term for the Affordable Care Act — by a 62-31 margin, according to the NBC/Marist poll.

But they favor Kynect — the name of the Bluegrass State’s health exchange under the ACA — by 34-18, with 18 percent unsure. Thirty percent had never heard of Kynect.

Meanwhile Team Mitch rolls on, with the captain pandering to the social issues and practicing dog whistle politics with the white folks. He doesn’t have to say anything about the president’s skin color.

Tooting his whistle by calling the president’s “war on coal” a “jihad,” the Muslim word for “holy war,” is working just fine for him, if the polls are correct.

And he’s not about to dispute Kentucky white folks who think Obama is a Kenyan-born, Islamo-Socialist who wants to replace the constitution with Sharia Law. He’s also way cool with Kentuckians who don’t know that “Obamacare” and “Kynect” are the same thing.

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