McConnell Holds Lead, Lunsford Makes Gains

by Gabe Bullard on October 31, 2008


What started as an uphill battle by a Louisville businessman to unseat one of the highest-ranking Senators in Washington has turned into the state’s most-watched race. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to fend off a challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

In downtown Louisville, it’s easy to find voters who don’t agree with the policies of 24-year veteran Senator Mitch McConnell.

“I believe Senator McConnell represents everything that’s wrong about Congress,” says Ben Weigel.

I would love to see Mitch McConnell get beat,” adds Rob Morrison.

But that doesn’t mean they’re clamoring for McConnell’s opponent, Bruce Lunsford, either.

“I think Lunsford’s got a lot of warts,” says Morrison.

“He has absolutely no experience as a public servant and this is about his 15th time running for statewide office,” says Weigel.

Actually, it’s his third. In 2003 Lunsford ran as a Democrat for governor of Kentucky, but dropped out of the race and endorsed Republican Ernie Fletcher. That, combined with his centrist views hurt Lunsford’s reputation with Democrats. Last year, he lost his party’s primary for a chance to run against the same Republican governor he once endorsed.

In May Lunsford won a 6-way Democratic Senate primary, but trailed McConnell by double digits in the polls.  But by late September, Lunsford had pulled within a few points of McConnell and now polls show McConnell with a zero to seven point lead.

Lunsford attributes his jump in the polls to the slide on Wall Street.

“We always felt the economy was going to be the driving issue in this race and that we did not think George Bush and Mitch McConnell did a very good job before then,” he says.

That sums up two of Lunsford’s strategies in the race; talk about the economy, and link McConnell with President George W. Bush. Lunsford hopes to use McConnell’s role in the recent passage of the rescue package to paint the Senator as Bush’s congressional lackey. It also doesn’t help, Lunsford adds, that McConnell is the highest ranking Republican in Congress.

“Whatever Bush wants, McConnell gives, and I think that this is a Bush-McConnell program that has been a marriage like Bonnie and Clyde,” he says. “It’s pretty hard not to see one without seeing the other.

“I think the leadership role Senator McConnell had in taking action to protect the savings and investments of Kentuckians will ultimately prove beneficial,” says Senator McConnell’s campaign manager Justin Brasell.

Brasell adds that the senator needs to convince voters the bailout was necessary, and that McConnell’s past support for deregulation has nothing to do with the state of the financial sector.

“Senator McConnell has been working hard to explain details about the financial rescue bill to Kentuckians,” says Brasell. “We’ve had two tele-town halls, calling voters about this issue and we’ve sent an e-mail.”

McConnell and Lunsford have had three face-to-face debates, but McConnell has been criticized for declining other forums, including one on Kentucky Educational Television.  Brasell claims McConnell’s teleconferences and e-mail blasts are working. He says an internal-campaign poll puts McConnell nine points up. Lunsford’s campaign polling gives the incumbent a three point lead, with 7 percent of voters undecided.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. He’s also a former political reporter who covered McConnell’s last three re-election campaigns. He says growing despair over the economy is helping Lunsford win those undecided voters in spite of himself.

“People may think there needs to be a change in Washington and vote McConnell out but they’re not quite ready to embrace Lunsford,” he says. “And the polls show that there’s a lot of Democrats who think that way. But when events in Washington start to hit people’s pocketbooks, then that begins to move numbers.”

Sensing a close race, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has started running ads linking McConnell to the economic crisis. They don’t mention Lunsford, but he’s funding his own ads with the same message.

If the DSCC can energize Kentuckians to remove McConnell, Lunsford is their only other option on the ballot.

And if Lunsford can overcome his own bumpy past with the party, he’ll improve his chances….Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Kentucky 3 to 2.

Lunsford’s not exactly in new territory. It wasn’t long ago, four years, in fact, that a previous Senate Minority Leader – Tom Daschle of South Dakota – lost a bid for re-election and his high-ranking post.

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