Kentucky offers the starkest example, where McConnell is the Democrats' juiciest target in an election cycle with limited pickup opportunities. McConnell has regularly sought to tie Lundergan Grimes to the president's energy policies, and recently proposed legislation ("The Coal Country Protection Act") to require the administration to meet benchmarks before EPA's plan can go into effect.
It's easy to forget, but McConnell won only 53 percent of the vote and trailed businessman Bruce Lunsford for a time in his last Senate campaign. One of his weak spots was eastern Kentucky's traditionally Democratic coal country, where he badly lost in Pike County (with 43 percent of the vote), Floyd County (35 percent), and Knott County (38 percent). Two years later, Rand Paul won 47 percent of the vote in these three counties — a marked improvement. In the 2012 presidential election, Romney won a whopping 71 percent — a remarkable shift in such a short amount of time.
In the Senate race, Lundergan Grimes will fare better than Obama, but McConnell should easily improve on his 2008 performance in coal country. And if Lundergan Grimes doesn't receive traditional Democratic levels of support in coal country, she'll have to more than make up the difference in the urban centers of Louisville and Lexington — or hope for depressed conservative turnout from the contentious Republican primary. With McConnell's weak approval ratings, it's possible — but it's becoming increasingly challenging with the administration's environmental push.
There are five additional competitive Senate races that billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, who pledged to spend $100 million in legislative races, is avoiding entirely — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina — an acknowledgment of the political headwinds with this year's map. And even some of the proposed targets, such as Iowa and Colorado, are states that depend on coal for a majority of their electricity needs. (Democrats thought Iowa Senate nominee Joni Ernst blundered badly when she criticized the Clean Water Act in Iowa, without considering the opposition to the regulations from farmers and agricultural interests in a farm-heavy state.) In those states, the GOP rebuttal will be along the lines of James Carville's "It's the economy, stupid" — a retort that resonates when the economy contracted in the last quarter.
Like with gun control, environmental advocates frequently tout polls showing overwhelming support for favored measures — positions that are squarely at odds with the actions of their own members who have their political careers on the line. Some of the disconnect is due to the precise wording of complex policy questions, and some of it is because the intensity is on the side of voters being burdened by higher costs and regulations. It's no coincidence that Obama delayed implementing these regulations until after his own reelection.
In 2009, as his approval ratings were dipping, Obama memorably told former Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas that the veteran Blue Dog Democrat didn't need to worry about his reelection because his own personal popularity would bail him out. Berry retired anyway, and a Republican won his seat by 9 points. The president and his team seem to be whistling past the political graveyard yet again, except this time they're so confident they're actively putting stumbling blocks in their friends' way.