By Elizabeth Kramer
This year’s open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Senator Jim Bunning has Kentucky Democrats brimming with hope that this could be their year to have one of their own on that side of that ruling body for the first time in more than a decade. With the primary election only five days away, the battle is heating up between Democrats Jack Conway and Daniel Mongiardo.
And this Senate race in particular had Jefferson County Democrats whooping and hollering last Friday at a party dinner as Congressman John Yarmuth introduced the last Democrat from Kentucky to hold a U.S. Senate seat.
“The great Senator Wendell Ford,” Yamouth’s voice bellows through the cavernous room.
After serving as Kentucky Governor, Ford was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 and held that seat for 24 years. Now, at 85 years old, he’s itching for his party to win his old seat back.
“It’s been 4,148 days since I left the Senate,” Ford says, “And it’s time to get that seat back with one of these two candidates.”
Those two candidates are Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo. And what gives Democrats hope is how six years ago then-State Senator Mongiardo came within 2 percentage points from defeating Republican Senator Jim Bunning.
Then a major issue was the Iraq war and Mongiardo campaigned on that and health care. This time around, he’s talking about the state’s financial health and taking his talking points to voters throughout the rural and urban rural areas, as he did recently in Louisville.
“If we got government back to bottom-up management,” Mongiardo says, “we’ll solve the problems that are facing our families today — the loss of jobs, the loss of homes, losing heath insurance and all these issues — because we’ll know them as soon as they’re happening, not by some statistic months later.”
This time around Mongiardo is not the heir apparent. His main opponent, Jack Conway, has raised more than two and half million dollars compared to Mongiardo’s nearly $2 million.
But as Conway works the same room of Democrats this evening, he sings a tune akin to his rival’s.
“Jobs and accountability and fiscal responsibility,” Conway states in a matter-of-fact manner.
But Conway’s added a twist to that song to help him close in on Mongiardo’s advantage in some of the polls to date, which Margiaro has sometimes led by double digits. In Conway’s chorus, he highlights his accomplishments in his current job.
“I’ve got to point to my positive record of accomplishment, Conway says, “of saving ratepayers over $100 million and the fact that we created a cybercrimes unit as Attorney General that’s taken 68,000 child porn images off of the Internet.”
With similar messages, the fierce competition between the two has been most apparent in campaign attack ads. For instance, Conway has criticized Mongiardo for his use of public money while travelling on state business. And Mongiardo has taken Conway to task for accepting money from people tied to Wall Street.
But some observers say it’s not the ads that will make the difference on Tuesday, but name recognition, grassroots campaigning and links to the political establishment — especially with anti-incumbent sentiment running high. One is Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“With Mongiardo, the labor support he has will probably be significant in terms of turning out vote on Election Day,” Cross says. “With Conway, it’s hard to say. He’s supported by some major figures in the party, but it sort of reemphasizes that Conway’s the establishment candidate.”
And as Cross sees it, it won’t be the votes from the strictly rural or urban areas that make the winner. He says he thinks the race will be decided by voters in small cities like Elizabethtown, Campbellsville, Danville, Richmond and Mount Sterling.
And whatever voters decide, the Democrats are ready to back their candidate to the hilt. Former Senator Wendell Ford is already thinking about the party’s focus next Wednesday morning, the day after voters have made their choices in the primary.
“We’ll eat our scrambled eggs and bacon, eat those biscuits,” he tells the crowd, “and turn ourselves ready for the war in November.”