A Real Challenge for McConnell?
After adding Kentucky's Senate race to our most recent Friday Line, we were interested to see how long it took national Democrats to find a candidate with the potential to make a serious run at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Well, that was quick. State Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) floated his name in the Louisville Courier-Journal today -- a sign that he may be moving toward becoming a candidate.
For the moment, Stumbo has formed an exploratory committee that will allow him to raise money for a potential race against McConnell. It's a smart first step given that McConnell is one of the most feared fundraisers in the country and ended June with a whopping $5.8 million in the bank.
So, assuming he is running, should McConnell be worried?
First elected the state's top cop in 2003, Stumbo has emerged as the most vocal and persistent critic of the ethical problem swirling around Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) As a result, he is widely known across the state and has a reputation as a fighter for the average Kentuckian. That's good.
Stumbo also has publicly acknowledged that he fathered a child out-of-wedlock. and was arrested for drunk driving --later reduced to a lesser charge in the early 1990s. That's not good.
A quick survey of unaffiliated Democrats in Kentucky portray Stumbo as a candidate with real political skills on the stump but major questions when it comes to fundraising. During his time in the state legislature and then as attorney general, Stumbo has never raised more than $400,000 for a race. He'd need a heck of a lot more than that to make a serious run at McConnell.
And, it's not entirely clear that Stumbo would have the primary field to himself or that the national party would clear it out for him. Wealthy businessman Charlie Owen has been making news about a potential race but that talk has quieted somewhat of late. Brunce Lunsford, who headed a gubernatorial ticket that featured Stumbo as lieutentant governor, has now lost two statewide races in the past four years and seems disinclined to run again. Democrats' best candidate -- Rep. Ben Chandler -- has already signalled party leaders privately that he won't run.
Given those hurdles why shouldn't you write off Stumbo's chances?
Because the playing field in politics often matters as much or more than the players. And, the playing field in Kentucky couldn't get much worse for McConnell. It's the double whammy of a very tough state political environment -- thanks to Fletcher -- and a difficult national environment thanks to President Bush and the war in Iraq. (We saw a similar double whammy in Ohio last cycle leading to Democratic wins for governor and Senate.)
As the highest ranking Republican in the Senate, McConnell is a lightning rod for Democratic critics of Republican politcies both in the state and nationally. As Fix friend and renowned political analyst Stu Rothenberg has said, McConnell could have problems similar to that of then Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in his 2004 re-election race. Daschle's role as the leader of his party in Washington made it impossible for him to convince Republican and Republican-leaning voters back in South Dakota that he was one of them.
Luckily for McConnell, Kentucky is not nearly as blue (in political terms) as South Dakota is red. President Bush won the state with 57 percent in 2000 and 60 percent. And Republicans not only hold the two Senate seats but also control four of the six House seats.
But, it would be a mistake to cast Kentucky as a Republican stronghold either. Democratic Reps. Ben Chandler and John Yarmouth have taken over formerly GOP-held seats over the past few cycles and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) is a favorite to defeat Fletcher this November in the governor's race.
For Stumbo or any other Democrat -- other than Chandler -- to have a chance of running close or even beating McConnell, the national and state environment need to stay right where they are or even get worse for Republicans.
If McConnell becomes the poster boy of the war in Iraq and Republican obstructionism, whoever the Democratic nominee is could benefit from a huge influx of national money aimed at sending the Minority Leader a message. And, don't forget that at the end of June the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had a four-to-one cash-on hand advantage over the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the end of June.
In other words, keep an eye on the race. Stumbo isn't an "A" candidate but he isn't an "F" either. This race has potential despite McConnell's significant political chops and fundraising capacity.
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