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Conway, Mongiardo Getting Nasty in Kentucky Race

While national political reporters have been focused almost entirely on Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary, Democrats in the Bluegrass State have an entertaining race of their own that raises some interesting questions about money, message, media and November.

[IMGCAP(1)]The early frontrunner in the Democratic race, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, has been short on cash, and it is unclear whether Attorney General Jack Conway has caught him or still trails. Public polls generally show that the lieutenant governor remains ahead, though his once 20-point lead has been cut considerably.

An early April SurveyUSA poll showed Conway closing to within a few points of Mongiardo (35 percent to 32 percent), while a more recent Public Policy Polling (D) survey conducted after Mongiardo began his TV ads showed the lieutenant governor ahead by 9 points, 36 percent to 27 percent.

A new Lexington Herald-Leader poll shows Mongiardo leading by 7 points, 39 percent to 32 percent, while some private polling suggests that the lieutenant governor’s lead may even be a little bigger.

The sole poll showing Conway ahead comes from the attorney general’s own pollster, Peter Brodnitz. That survey, which seems less convincing in the light of other surveys, found Conway ahead of Mongiardo by 4 points.

Mongiardo, who lost a squeaker of a Senate race to Sen. Jim Bunning (R) six years ago, was elected lieutenant governor in 2007. Given those two statewide contests, he began his Senate bid with a considerable lead over Conway, who narrowly lost a Congressional race to Louisville-area Republican Anne Northup in 2002 but was elected state attorney general the same year Mongiardo won his statewide office.

Conway, who has been endorsed by the Louisville Courier-Journal, has the backing of most of the state political establishment and outraised Mongiardo $2.5 million to $1.7 million through the end of March.

Observers note that both Conway and Mongiardo have assets.

In addition to endorsements and financial resources, Conway “looks the part” of a Senator, according to one neutral Democrat. He is a strong campaigner and, according to observers, a more disciplined candidate.

But while Conway certainly should have appeal in metropolitan Louisville, Mongiardo looks like a better fit for much of the rest of the state. He is, one insider said, “more of a good ol’ boy candidate,” and his more populist style fits the election cycle better than Conway’s preppy look.

The attorney general went on television first and has aired a series of 30-second spots, including a number of ads that bash Mongiardo for everything from opposing health care reform to “using our tax dollars for his own real estate deal” to “pigging out” at the public trough.

A March 24 Conway press release charged that Mongiardo “doesn’t show up for work 70% of the time” and “violates [the] public trust,” while a May 4 Conway release refers to Mongiardo’s “crumbling integrity” and says that his “word is no good and he is not entitled to his own set of delusional facts.”

These kinds of charges are unusually strong for a primary, though they follow naturally from Conway’s emphasis on Mongiardo’s personal ethics.

The lieutenant governor, who didn’t have the money to respond to Conway’s early spots for about three weeks, has been limited to running populist 15-second ads that portray Conway as “backed by Wall Street and banking interests,” slam him for supporting cap-and-trade and imply he is a tool of the state’s utility companies.

If anything, the tightness of the race is likely to lead both Democratic campaigns to level more pointed criticisms at their opponent.

The Democratic race seems increasingly important — and valuable — because ophthalmologist Rand Paul is widely regarded as the frontrunner in the GOP race.

National Republican strategists are uncertain whether Paul, whose libertarian views and outsider approach are reminiscent of his father’s, can win a general election, and hypothetical general election trial heats confirm that Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) would be a more formidable nominee for his party.

The increased vitriol in the Kentucky Democratic contest has to worry Democrats, whose hopes for an upset in November probably depend on party unity and Democratic enthusiasm for their party’s nominee. President Barack Obama drew only 41 percent in the state after all.

Indeed, while Democrats have been trying to create a narrative about divisive Republican primaries that will hurt the party’s nominees in November, Democrats have had their own primary problems for the fall.

Aside from this increasingly bitter Kentucky race, the party has primary problems in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado and Ohio, where Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) is angry about what she believes was unfair treatment during her race against Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who won the primary only 55 percent to 45 percent, even though Brunner was seriously underfunded.

And in Illinois, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who won only 39 percent of the vote in the Democratic Senate primary, will have trouble winning over the supporters of David Hoffman (who garnered 30 percent), whose anti-corruption message was clearly aimed at Giannoulias.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.