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Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Kentucky

Outlook: Leans Republican


October 20, 2008 Update:

Kentucky? Competitive? The list grows ever larger of Republican seats being threatened as we move closer to November 4th and a defeat here would serve as a crippling strike right at the top of the Republican Congressional leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell no longer enjoys the double digits leads he held through mid-September, and our quiet suggestions from the beginning of a potential barn-burner now appear prophetic. This one won’t be easy for the Bluegrass State’s Senior Senator.

The story here is this: Bruce Lunsford is a well funded candidate going up against a Republican incumbent who is tied a little too much to the Bush administration for his own good. McConnell represents the face of GOP Senate leadership during a time when Republicans are being blamed for the economic mess. Kentucky is not averse to giving Republicans and incumbents a hard time, from Jim Bunting’s close victories to ousting of Gov. Ernie Fletcher last year, to McConnell himself, who has never been one for overwhelming popularity and consistent landslide victories. This race, along with the Georgia Senate race among others, represents a battle the GOP needs to win to avoid the possibility of a 60 seat filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, a situation once thought to be highly unlikely. We give a slight nod to the Incumbent Minority Leader, who has been known to slug out tough victories come Election Day, and who, unlike some of his more threatened Republican colleagues, will enjoy the up-ticket boost of a comfortable John McCain victory. But keep your eyes on this one; if the Democrats sweep the field on November 4th, Kentucky would be the “straw that broke the GOP camel’s back.”

June 2, 2008 Update:

At least now we know which Democrat will lose in November. After months of a hotly contested primary, businessman Bruce Lunsford pulled away from the pack and secured the Democratic nomination. Unfortunately for him, most major polls show him losing by double digits to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has continued to make the efficacy argument, saying that his position as Minority Leader affords Kentuckians more benefit than replacing him with a bottom-of-the-totem-pole freshman Senator. It’s an argument that seems to be working, and should keep McConnell in his seat through another term.

March 5, 2008 Update:

As of now, all signs point to Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell being able to right the Republican ship come November. After Democrat Steve Beshear won the state house last November, hopes were high among Democrats that they could field a strong opponent to McConnell. Unfortunately, top-tier Democratic candidates have walked away from the race one by one. The leading candidate for the Democratic nomination appears to be businessman and two-time gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford, who has garnered support from New York Senator Chuck Schumer and the DSCC. Greg Fischer, the other main contender for the nomination, has opened up with several salvos against Lunsford’s string of electoral defeats, claiming that the only chance Kentucky Democrats have for a victory is someone without Lunsford’s baggage. The reality is that whichever of them wins the nomination will be soundly defeated by McConnell, who has the triple threat of incumbency, a huge war chest, and the argument that his position as Senate Minority Leader benefits the people of Kentucky in a way that no freshman Senator can.

December 20, 2007 Update:

Democrat Greg Stumbo, the outgoing Attorney General of Kentucky, has announced he will not seek Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat in 2008. Stumbo will instead campaign for a return to the Kentucky House of Representatives.

State auditor Crit Luallen, seen as another of the Democrats’ top choices for unseating McConnell in this election cycle, also announced that she won’t challenge the Senate Minority Leader. With Luallen and Stumbo both gone, the Democratic race to take on McConnell gets blown wide open; unfortunately for the Democrats, none of the handful of candidates still in the race have much chance of defeating the well-known (and fairly popular) McConnell.

November 26, 2007 Update:

Which one means more to the people of Kentucky: the endorsement of their recently elected Governor, or the position of Senate Minority Leader? Come November 2008, we should know the answer to that question.

Mitch McConnell is something of a Kentucky icon, a Republican Senator with more than 20 years’ experience under his belt. Senate Republicans rewarded his experience after the 2006 election cycle by giving him an increased leadership role in that august chamber. Kentuckians certainly appreciate what that means for their state: when the leading Senator of the GOP hails from your neck of the woods, you get a little more attention. But what’s unclear in Kentucky is just how much more of McConnell’s support for the war in Iraq people are willing to take.

With the election of Democrat Steve Beshear, McConnell’s Democratic opponents get a leg-up from their previous position. Beshear obviously has statewide appeal, and his voice in favor of the Democratic nominee could be a significant factor in how competitive this race becomes. Democrats feel they have several strong nominees, in particular newly elected state auditor Crit Luallen. Also high on their list is outgoing attorney general Greg Stumbo, who like Luallen and Beshear has been elected to statewide office, and who should make an official announcement in either direction in early December.

As of now, it’s hard to see a Democrat dislodging McConnell from his seat. He’s a shrewd politician with a long and distinguished record in Kentucky. Beshear’s ascension to the governor’s mansion was more likely a product of outgoing governor Ernie Fletcher’s scandals than a true shift in Kentucky’s political leanings, but Democrats who are feeling their oats are likely to give it a shot anyway. McConnell won’t be a shoo-in, but he is the odds-on favorite until Democrats prove otherwise.


Background

As the Senate Minority leader with over 20 years of experience, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell would appear to hold a fairly safe seat as we approach the 2008 Senate race. Nonetheless, due to his steadfast support of President Bush’s Iraq policy and an unavoidable connection to a still reeling Republican party, the 2008 Kentucky race may turn out to be a real run for the roses.

Recently, McConnell has received a lot of criticism for falling out of touch with his voters, declaring that his constituency was behind him in his firm support of the President’s Iraq policy, while polls showed that over half of Kentucky’s voters thought differently. Moreover, the Senator’s job approval rating remains below 50 percent. If that is not enough, McConnell faces intra-party challenges as well. Kentucky’s Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher has shown support for McConnell but recently stopped short of endorsing him after McConnell spurned Fletcher in the 2007 gubernatorial primary. A movement has even been started to draft former Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy to challenge McConnell in the primary. While it appears McConnell still has not taken his blinders off when it comes to Iraq and his support of the Bush administration, he does have a v
ery large war chest, $7.6 million to be exact, to soothe old wounds.

Though several potential challengers graze in the paddock, no Democratic challenger has officially entered the starting gate to run against McConnell. Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo has formed an exploratory committee, but certainly has some deciding to do as he is still reeling from a recent electoral loss and carries the personal baggage of an extra-marital affair and DUI. Louisville businessman and former U.S. Assistant Attorney Charlie Owens has also expressed interest in running for the seat, and certainly has the money to put up a good fight. Finally, it is Congressman Ben Chandler who is receiving all the hype from his fellow Democrats. A major push is underway to get him to run; however, he has yet to enter the race.

With no Democrat entered into the race, Mitch McConnell will likely keep his ”Old Kentucky Home” yet. However, if Ben Chandler or Greg Stumbo enter the race, Democrats will hope that Kentuckians will break out their big hats and mint juleps once again, and that the derby might come twice next year.

Candidates

Bruce Lunsford – Democrat – businessman
Website

Mitch McConnell (I) – Republican – current U.S. Senator
Website