The Magazine

Will It Be a Blue Bluegrass State?

The Democrats' war on Mitch McConnell.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By JOHN DAVID DYCHE
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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.