McConnell Works to Turn Critics' Attacks Into Strengths
The 2008 Kentucky Senate race is providing a political lesson on the ancient Chinese military text, "The Art of War." And in this 21st century senatorial showdown, both sides are trying to turn the other's strengths into weaknesses.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who still lacks a top-tier Democratic opponent for his 2008 bid for a fifth Senate term, has faced a barrage of ads from liberal coalitions attacking him mostly for his support for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. This week, a new round of ads is on the air, funded by the labor-supported Americans United for Change, rapping McConnell for opposing a Democratic plan to expand the federal-state Children's Health Insurance Program. It's the second TV buy of more than $100,000 launched against McConnell by Americans United this year.
The liberal groups are hoping to turn McConnell's biggest asset, his position as minority leader, into one of his bigger liabilities by tying him to the unpopular Bush, whose approval rating in Kentucky stands at 40 percent, according to the latest statewide poll. McConnell's job in the Senate has required him to take the lead on positions that have not always been the easiest to take back home. Even if the liberal groups can't recruit a top-tier candidate to take on McConnell, they hope to temper him politically, weakening him to the point where he might have to cut deals with Democrats to protect his own political hide.
But McConnell is hardly taking this situation sitting down. In just the last week, his campaign issued two fundraising e-mails specifically citing the attacks by liberal groups such as MoveOn.Org. He's specifically telling supporters to give now because the 3rd quarter fundraising deadline is this Sunday. And McConnell strongly hinted that he will soon begin his own television ad campaign, vowing to launch "an aggressive effort to counter all the negative attacks."
"You only have to turn on the TV to know that there are well-organized liberal groups looking to make this my toughest campaign yet. They've used the worst tactics to try and smear me and other conservatives in Kentucky. And they want to use the end-of-quarter numbers to show they're gaining ground. That's the last thing I want to happen," McConnell wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
The most successful recent example of this sort of political maneuvering was the 2004 South Dakota Senate race, in which then-Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D) was ousted by John Thune (R) in a race decided by 4,000 votes. The two candidates spent more than $35 million to target a voter pool of about 390,000.
But Republicans had a top-tier candidate in Thune, who tied Daschle to the more liberal elements of the national Democratic leadership. At this point much of Kentucky is fixated on the governor's race five weeks away. McConnell's supporters believe that the ad campaigns, even though they are financed by outside groups, are also meant as a recruiting tool for potential candidates, including state Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) and wealthy businessman Charlie Owen (D). The top Democratic target, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, has so far demurred at challenging McConnell.
And the newest poll, the acclaimed Bluegrass Poll from The Courier-Journal of Louisville, found McConnell in strong shape for now. His approval rating is 54 percent, while 28 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove. On Iraq, 44 percent want McConnell to oppose Bush on the war, with 42 percent wanting him to back the president.
This, according to McConnell's camp, shows the left-wing activists have not succeeded in their "Art of War" effort, because McConnell's personal approval rating is tracking 12 points ahead of the percentage of support for the war. His Senate leadership position, and its inherent ties to the White House, has not overly eroded support for McConnell.
Regardless of his opponents' success so far, McConnell intends to continue working to turn his weakness -- leading a party tied to an unpopular president and war -- into strength. As he wrote in his e-mail yesterday, "They're using distortions, half-truths, and outright lies to paint a false picture of my record. Well, I've always said the best defense is a strong offense."
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