Outside Interests Enter Senate Race

by Gabe Bullard on September 5, 2008

In the 1970s, the terms 527, PAC and 501 (c) were added to the political lexicon. Since then, groups bearing those classifications have been responsible for the infamous swiftboat ads and introducing the world to Willie Horton. These groups are now showing up in Kentucky.

Here’s an ad aimed at Senator Mitch McConnell.

And here’s one that goes after Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford.

The first ad was made and paid for by the Sierra Club, the second by the Employee Freedom Action Committee. Both are among several special interest groups swirling around the Lunsford – McConnell race.

“If I were a candidate, I’d want one,” says Dr. Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

Rhodebeck says groups like 527s and 501 (c)s are almost always based on a narrow set of issues and focus on incumbents who have taken a stance on those issues. Why incumbents?

“The voting record is out there and it also shows a real commitment among incumbents as to what type of legislation they’re willing to support or oppose,” she says.

In other words, a group like the Sierra Club will bash McConnell on his environmental record without necessarily supporting Bruce Lunsford, while the Employee Freedom Action Committee will support McConnell’s stance on labor by attacking Lunsford.

“These organizations that are against us have outspent anybody for us, probably ten to one,” says Lunsford.

Bruce Lunsford doubts he can raise as much money as McConnell, and he’s not counting on much help from 527s. Rhodebeck says Lunsford’s more centrist views and failed past campaigns are factors in the relative lack of support. But while Lunsford may not excite special interests, he has rallied the national Democratic party to his campaign.

“They have actually, at this particular point actually injected money into the Kentucky Democratic Party focused on my campaign that has led us to build our ground game,” says Lunsford. “And I guess we have about 40 people out there.”

Last quarter, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gave Lunsford the most money it legally could; nearly $40,000.

That’s something the committee’s Republican counterpart is unlikely to do for Senator McConnell, since he’s amassed a campaign war chest that at one point exceeded ten million dollars.

But PoliSci professor Laurie Rhodebeck says big spending doesn’t usually favor incumbents.

“One of the few times spending lots of money helps is in boosting the vote for the challenger,” she says.

Lunsford has spent millions of his own dollars on past campaigns and Rhodebeck says continuing to do so is the most surefire way for the Louisville businessman to get his name in the minds of voters. If that’s so, former Republican Party of Kentucky vice chair Marcus Carey says Lunsford should start writing checks.

“Probably the number one component of any political campaign is name recognition,” says Carey. “And that is how widely is someone’s name recognized by people who are likely to show up on Election Day and vote.”

McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader who’s seeking a fifth term in office, has the edge over Lunsford when it comes to familiarity. Through a spokesperson, McConnell declined to comment for this story, but he’s expected to benefit from the Republican’s statewide get out the vote campaign.

Despite gaps in funding, poll numbers and name recognition, the increased interest from national groups shows that both sides are taking this race seriously.

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