In 2004, South Dakota voters ousted Tom Daschle despite his status as the Senate's Democratic leader. Kentucky Democrats have dreamed of doing a "Daschle in reverse" to Mitch McConnell ever since he became the Senate Republican leader in 2006. Recent polls suggest the once far-fetched fantasy could become shocking reality in the Bluegrass State.
McConnell's opposition for a fifth term is multimillionaire Bruce Luns-ford. The mild-mannered incumbent seemed secure until the financial system started to disintegrate. A pair of late September, pre-bailout polls put Lunsford within 3 percentage points and 1 percentage point, respectively. While a Rasmussen poll has since given McConnell a 9-point advantage, the economic turmoil has left him more vulnerable than at any time since his first reelection bid in 1990.
A McConnell loss could drop the GOP's Senate seat count below the all-important 41 required to continue the successful two-year tactic of blocking bad Democratic bills by means of filibuster. The Kentucky race could thus determine whether 2009 will be the dawn of an utterly unchecked Obama-Pelosi-Reid liberal axis dominating the federal government.
Things would be even worse for -McConnell if commonwealth Democrats had a decent candidate. But stronger foes, like congressman Ben Chandler, passed on the race because of McConnell's fundraising prowess, his reputation for ruthless campaigning, the federal largesse his earmarks have showered on Kentucky, and the state's decidedly red coloration in the presidential contest. Lunsford lost badly in the last two Democratic gubernatorial primaries, but he at least had name recognition and could finance his own campaign.
After serving as an apparatchik for former governor John Y. Brown Jr., Lunsford made a fortune in the nursing home business. His company, Vencor, flourished until 1997 when Medicare reimbursement changes drove it into bankruptcy. Lots of local shareholders lost lots of money. Lunsford's legacy also includes a federal false claims case settled for $104.5 million and plenty of bad publicity for evicting Medicaid residents and providing poor care.
But Lunsford emerged from the mess with fortune intact. He produced hip movies, raced thoroughbreds, and generally joined the international jet set, all while supporting Republican candidates, including McConnell and George W. Bush. -Lunsford embarrassingly abandoned his 2003 gubernatorial bid when Chandler, the eventual Democratic nominee, hit him hard with an ad about Vencor's problems. He then angered the Democratic establishment by endorsing and working for the Republican victor, Ernie Fletcher.
Four years later, Lunsford tried, and lost, again, this time to Steve -Beshear, whom McConnell had trounced for the Senate in 1996. Most figured his political career was over, but when no top-tier challenger to McConnell emerged, the lure of Luns-ford's limitless pocketbook proved irresistible to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) head Chuck Schumer. With characteristic cynicism, Schumer figured Lunsford could simply finance his way around a résumé replete with business failure, election losses, and contributions to Republicans.
McConnell's career has been on an uninterrupted upward trajectory for over three decades. Born in Alabama, where his mother's determination helped him conquer polio, and raised in Georgia, he moved to Kentucky as a teen. As a pro-civil rights campus politician at the University of Louisville, McConnell introduced Barry Goldwater at a 1962 campus appearance, but preferred the moderate William Scranton as the GOP's 1964 nominee.
The courtly Senator John Sherman Cooper was McConnell's mentor. Remembered as John F. Kennedy's best Republican friend in the Senate and a critic of President Nixon's policy in Vietnam, Cooper took his former intern McConnell along to watch President Johnson sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After stints on the staff of another Kentucky Republican, Senator Marlow Cook, and in the Justice Department in the Ford years, McConnell went home with his sights firmly set on a Senate seat of his own.
He advocated aggressive campaign finance reforms after Watergate, but gradually changed his tune after experiencing the power of a hostile press in two terms as chief executive of Democratic-dominated Jefferson County, the state's largest. A humorous ad conceived by then-consultant Roger Ailes was the trademark of McConnell's 1984 Senate race. It showed baying bloodhounds trailing his opponent, Dee Huddleston, who had missed Senate votes to make paid speeches. The spot helped McConnell become the only Republican to defeat a Democratic Senate incumbent that year.
He rose through the ranks by performing unpleasant tasks well. McCon-nell led the opposition to campaign finance for years, clashing bitterly with John McCain in the process. He deftly handled the departure of Republican Bob Packwood, who obstructed a Senate ethics investigation of his boorish behavior. As McConnell climbed the greasy pole in Washington, he was also masterminding candidate recruitment and campaign strategy that transformed Democratic Kentucky into a bona fide two-party state.
Despite two undistinguished cycles atop the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he became whip in January 2003 after being reelected with a record percentage for a Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky. McCon-nell had prudently deferred to Bill Frist for majority leader when Trent Lott stepped down, but assumed leadership of the Republican conference after Frist retired. To his disappointment, however, the GOP had just become the minority after the corruption- and Iraq-inspired electoral debacle of 2006.
A master of Senate procedure, McConnell has run parliamentary rings around majority leader Harry Reid. He has held his fractious caucus together in using the Senate's supermajority rules to block the worst Democratic initiatives and improve the rest. He has consistently supported, and sometimes guided, the administration (in which his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, is the last member of the original cabinet) and called President Bush one of the greatest in American history.
McConnell began his reelection campaign with ads reminding proud and provincial Kentuckians that the state had produced only one other Senate party leader, Alben Barkley. Next he touted the slabs of federal bacon his ever increasing clout had allowed him to bring home to the relatively poor commonwealth. The campaign's next phase was all about energy, with McConnell chanting the mantra of "produce more, use less."
While Chao's tenure on Vencor's board has limited McConnell's ability to attack Lunsford on that front, he savaged him on several others, including the magnate's homes in multiple states. Lacking a loyal base, a political identity, and any consistent line of attack, the Democrat floundered. McConnell got much the better of his poorly prepared rival in an unmoderated and untelevised mano-a-mano debate. Although Lunsford's ads sharpened after he changed media consultants, it still looked like McConnell could coast home.
Then the bottom fell out of the financial markets. McConnell found himself squarely in the middle of an emergency cleanup of a historic financial mess. He had been in Washington while the problem silently metastasized, and, fairly or not, scared and suffering citizens may blame him for it. His Kentucky Republican colleague Jim Bunning called it socialism, but McConnell played a leading role in passing the $700 billion bailout that further embittered voters.
McConnell's latest ads, reviling a Lunsford venture for providing shabby care to veterans, seem off-key in the current climate. In ordinary times his refusal to debate Luns-ford on statewide television might be smart, but in these extraordinary ones it looks like he is hiding in fear. Always virulently anti-McConnell, the state's big newspapers in Louisville and Lexington are febrile and trembling with political bloodlust at the prospect of vanquishing their longtime nemesis.
Without a hint of irony, much less decency, the DSCC's debut ad in the race blasts McConnell for backing 1999 banking deregulation that Schumer himself called vital to America's future. But the content matters less than the fact that the DSCC now sees spending in Kentucky as a good investment. More outside money may soon follow.
Almost no one is actually for Luns-ford. Labor, liberals, and "yellow dog" Democrats simply hate McConnell. This year that may be enough, but no one should make the mistake of counting out the man Kentuckians of both parties regard as the modern-day heir of Henry Clay.
John David Dyche is a lawyer and a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal.