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Anti-McConnell Noise May Yield a Race

Democrats Hope TV Attack Ads Weaken Minority Leader in ’08

A slew of recent ads targeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been flooding TV sets in the Bluegrass State and appear to be setting the table for a strong Democratic challenger to step in for the 2008 cycle.

But as of right now no one has accepted the invitation to dinner.

In the two months since the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran an ad blasting McConnell’s support of President Bush’s Iraq policy, liberal groups have aired more than a half-dozen other ads in the state hitting him on everything from his immigration stands to his ties to Washington, D.C., lobbyists.

Ad buys have ranged from hundreds of dollars to upwards of $100,000 and have run on broadcast and cable stations. The latest ad airing this week by the liberal group Americans United for Change criticize McConnell for voting against the SCHIP reauthorization bill, claiming that McConnell is choosing “big insurance companies” over Bluegrass State children.

But despite all the activity designed to weaken McConnell politically, Democrats currently have no top-tier challenger to McConnell. And a poll conducted last week by the Louisville Courier-Journal showed that the Minority Leader’s statewide approval rating at 54 percent, the same number as when the paper last tested his popularity in February.

So what’s all the anti-McConnell fuss about?

“As far as I’m concerned right now, the table is bare,” said David Hawpe, editorial director of the Courier-Journal who writes a twice-weekly column on state politics. “There is a lot of people who would like to sit down to a meal of McConnell meat. A lot of people who don’t like him and would like to see him retired from the Senate. But being honest about it, politically I don’t see anybody coming to the table yet.”

One Democratic operative said the reason no one has come forward to challenge McConnell yet is that the entire Democratic establishment in Kentucky is too busy focusing on the November gubernatorial election, where former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) appears poised to knock off embattled incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R). Once that election is over, the operative said, statewide attention will move to the next Democratic target — McConnell.

While state Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) has formed an exploratory committee for a possible Senate run, many state and national Democrats agree that Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) would be the party’s best hope for knocking off McConnell.

“Ben Chandler, I think everyone agrees, would be our strongest candidate,” said Jonathan Miller, state treasurer and chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “But he really is doing a great job as a Congressman and I think he wants to stay there for the time being. … From what I know he’s more likely than not to want to keep his current office.”

Others mentioned for a possible Senate run are Owsley Brown, a former Republican and millionaire businessman whose family name is well known in the Kentucky liquor business; Crit Luallen, who is currently running for her second term as state auditor; Charlie Owen, another wealthy businessman who is a frequent candidate in Kentucky; and former state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D), the current candidate for lieutenant governor who ran against Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in 2004.

In the meantime, the ongoing attack ads, even if they aren’t currently moving numbers, are forcing McConnell to look over his shoulder and worry about voters in Kentucky as opposed to picking up Republican seats in the Senate, another Kentucky Democratic operative said.

Brad Woodhouse, a former Democratic operative who is executive director of Americans United for Change, likened what is currently happening in Kentucky to a strategy that some national conservative groups used during the 2004 Senate contest in South Dakota that saw the defeat of then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

“One of the benefits Republicans and these right-wing groups saw in targeting Daschle was that they were pinning him down and making it hard for him to lead the Democratic caucus,” Woodhouse said. “In that respect, I don’t think they were very successful. But we’re doing something very similar here.”

McConnell’s chief of staff Billy Piper dismissed the Daschle analogy.

“If that’s the lesson they’re taking it’s the wrong lesson, because it’s a different set of circumstances,” he said. “Daschle couldn’t be the same person in South Dakota that he was in Washington. Sen. McConnell doesn’t give two different speeches. … It’s not like back home in Kentucky we’re talking one way about national security issues and another way out here. He’s completely consistent.”

McConnell’s campaign said this week that the Minority Leader will have brought in $10 million for his re-election by the end of the year.

The Kentucky Democratic operative speculated that McConnell is raising large sums of money “in the hopes to get into a position that any reasonable pol short of a rich guy would say, ‘Why do I want this fight, why do I want to step in there?’ … The question is can McConnell convince [any potential challenger] to sit out the fight for two years” until 2010, when Bunning is up for re-election?

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that Republicans shouldn’t take too much comfort in the Courier-Journal poll.

“That was one poll of many,” he said. “If you look at other polls you’ll see his standing is considerably weaker. … What consistently shows up in the state is the voters in Kentucky overwhelmingly want change they overwhelmingly want a new direction in Iraq and Mitch McConnell stands on the floor of the Senate every day blocking change not just the war but on children’s health insurance, on ethics reform and on many other issues.”

On the ground in Kentucky, Jonathan Miller said that even if the latest poll numbers don’t show a shift in McConnell’s approval rating, “I do think they’re helpful in the sense that it helps set the table in that voters are now more likely to make the connection between policies that they are strongly opposed to and the fact that Sen. McConnell supports” Bush policies.

The latest Courier-Journal poll found that 44 percent of voters wanted McConnell to oppose Bush’s Iraq policies, while 42 percent said he should stick with the president.

“You’re going to see a lot of excitement in this race, which is really interesting because if you had asked us six months ago we would have said ‘no way,’” the state chairman said. “We would have said it’s more likely than not that we’re going to have a marginal candidate against Mitch McConnell because of his fundraising prowess. But the last six months have dramatically changed both in terms of his standing and the standing of the war and the standing of the Kentucky Republican Party, which is really really low because of all of our governor’s problem with corruption.”

But Hawpe said it would be unwise to overestimate the effect that a few ads by outside interest groups can have against McConnell in the minds of Kentucky voters.

“It’s one thing to sit hundreds of miles away and plot an ad campaign that attacks McConnell, but it’s another to go from town to town in Kentucky where he’s delivered money relentlessly and really understand why it is that his approval rating would be at 54 percent,” he said. “The ads run up against a very long-term effort on McConnell’s part to deliver money, programs, benefits, federal largess to constituencies all over the state. It really is going to take something major to disturb the relationship with Kentucky voters.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher called any plans to knock off McConnell a pipe dream.

“Democrats know they are not going to find a top-tier candidate to run against Sen. McConnell, so they are going to use these ads as the candidate,” she said. “They are going to have these Democrat front groups dump a ton of money into the state. If you look at Sen. McConnell’s polling … they are not having any kind of effect. They are just going to waste their money in the state.”

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