WASHINGTON — The best chances for Democrats to pick up a GOP-held Senate seat are in Kentucky and Georgia, two conservative states where President Obama isn't popular.
For Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn, success in November may be determined by their ability to turn out and win two groups that were crucial to Obama's victories: women for Grimes in Kentucky and blacks for Nunn in Georgia.
"The South has been the most Republican part of the country in presidential elections," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "If Democrats can begin to make some headway, it will ease the burden to do well in other parts of the country."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who beat back a Tea Party primary challenger Tuesday night, is already framing his campaign by labeling Grimes as "Obama's candidate." Grimes, the secretary of State, said the president isn't on the ballot and focused on McConnell's record with women and his stance against the Violence Against Women's Act and paycheck fairness.
"If you can't stand up to vote to protect Kentucky's women against violence, you don't deserve to be a United States senator," Grimes said. "I'll work to make sure that Kentucky women get equal pay for equal work."
McConnell and Grimes have been running neck-and-neck in public opinion polls, which political experts attribute to the senator's unpopularity as well as Grimes' strength as a candidate. The Bluegrass Poll taken ahead of Tuesday's primary showed 45% of women support Grimes while 41% support McConnell.
"McConnell will now turn to her and quickly seek to frame her candidacy about Obama, liberals and Hollywood," said Ernest Yanarella, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. "Grimes is really going to have to turn this election to the question of McConnell's record and specifically his record of looking to the basic needs of Kentuckians."
In Georgia, three public opinion polls in the last week showed Nunn close to or tied with David Perdue and Jack Kingston, the two Republicans who will meet in a July 22 runoff. Perdue is a former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, and Kingston is an 11-term congressman. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, calls the Republicans "flawed candidates."
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said either Perdue or Kingston can defeat the Democratic nominee."MIchelle Nunn would be another rubber stamp for the liberal Obama agenda in the Senate," Moran said.
Democrats point to the Peach State's changing demographics as being in their favor. Whites accounted for more than 70% of the vote in the 2004 elections, but that share dropped to a little more than 61% in 2012.
Mitt Romney won in Georgia in 2012, but Democrats like to note that Obama still won 45% of the vote without really trying. The 7-point margin in Georgia was the second narrowest in the states Obama lost to Romney, behind the swing state of North Carolina.
Bullock said African Americans have made up roughly 30% of the vote in recent statewide elections. He estimates Nunn, a former volunteer organization executive and daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, would have to keep the black vote "in the high 20s" to have a fighting chance.