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Kentucky: Will Dems' Bandwagon Roll Over McConnell?

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher's (R) lopsided defeat at the hands of former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) last night already has the political community -- both here and in the Bluegrass State -- buzzing about what it all means for the '08 reelection chances of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky
Mitch McConnell is the architect of the modern Kentucky Republican Party, which went from political afterthought to dominant power in the state between 1984 and 2004. (Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

McConnell's decision to begin running TV ads late this week is sure to fuel talk that he is nervous and getting more so after Fletcher's loss. McConnell is spending roughly $117,000 on the 60-second ad, which The Fix has yet to see. That cost includes 500 gross ratings points (meaning the average viewer will see the ad five times in a week) in the Louisville media market and 600 points in the Lexington market.

As we have noted before, Democrats believe that McConnell's job in Washington is complicating his reelection chances at home, as he is forced to defend policies -- the war in Iraq, immigration reform -- that are non-starters for voters in his home state.

Republicans have retorted that McConnell remains largely in step with his conservative-minded state and, even if that wasn't the case, Democrats don't have a serious recruit on the horizon.

Let's unpack each of those assumptions in light of Beshear's victory yesterday.

On the federal level, Kentucky has favored Republicans -- albeit it narrowly at times -- over the last several elections.

President Bush won the Commonwealth with 56.5 percent in 2000 and increased that margin to 59.5 percent four years later. Former President Bill Clinton did carry Kentucky in 1992 and 1996, but neither time with more than 46 percent of the vote. The three previous presidential elections -- 1988, 1984 and 1980 -- saw the Republican nominee win with 55.5 percent, 60 percent and 49.1 percent, respectively.

Similarly, the last time a Democrat won a Senate race in Kentucky was in 1992, when Sen. Wendell Ford was reelected with 63 percent. In the open-seat race to replace Ford in 1998, Reps. Jim Bunning (R) and Scotty Baesler (D) squared off; after the dust cleared, Bunning had won by just 6,766 votes. Democrats fell short again in 2004 when state Sen. Dan Mongiardo (D) took 49.3 percent of the vote against Bunning.

McConnell, however, has not faced a serious challenge since 1990; he won reelection with 65 percent in 2002, 55 percent in 1996, and 52 percent in 1990.

In the House, however, Democrats have had far more luck so far this decade -- claiming Fletcher's seat in a 2004 special election and defeating Rep. Anne Northup (R) last year.

And on the state level, it is Democrats who have been dominant. Until Fletcher won in 2003, Democrats had held the governor's mansion since 1967 and could well be at the start of another extended run with Beshear's victory last night.

The truth is that Kentucky isn't a swing state, but it's also not a state that is a stone cold lock for the Republican Party either. Fletcher's loss and the narrow wins of Bunning in 1998 and 2004 are better viewed as isolated incidents of candidates inflicting considerable damage on themselves than some sort of broader trend. But Democrats have run competitive races in the past few cycles, and the state's roots are strongly Democratic (until the 1994 GOP sweep, Democrats held four of the state's six House seats).

So does the just-concluded governor's race matter -- if at all -- when it comes to assessing McConnell's chances?

Beshear's win will almost certainly energize the Democratic political establishment and the activist base in the state, and could also provide encouragement for candidates considering the race.

At the top of that list is state Auditor Crit Luallen, who was reelected overwhelmingly to a second term last night, with 59 percent. Luallen visited with officials from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee earlier this year to talk about a race, and the DSCC has commissioned two polls in the state -- perhaps in an attempt to convince Luallen to take the plunge.

Democratic strategists like Luallen for several reasons, including a compelling personal story -- she has twice battled cancer in recent years -- and believe her tenure in her current post gives her a nice launching pad from which to challenge McConnell. (A recent poll by Research 2000 for the Lexington Herald-Leader showed Luallen trailing McConnell by a 45 percent to 40 percent margin.) One potential hiccup in that plan, however, is that Luallen served as executive secretary in the administration of disgraced Gov. Paul Patton (D) -- a connection Republicans would be sure to make if she decided to challenge McConnell.

Although Luallen appears to be Democrats' first choice, there is also serious talk about a candidacy by Greg Fischer, the CEO of Dant Clayton, which, judging from their Web site -- stadiumbleachers.com, appears to specialize in "stadium and bleacher solutions." Fischer is a political novice but is apparently quite wealthy and might be willing to spend significant funds on a race against McConnell.

State Attorney General Greg Stumbo, wealthy businessman Charlie Owen and Andrew Horne, an Iraq war vet and unsuccessful congressional candidate in 2006, are also in the mix for Democrats, but not as highly regarded as Luallen or Fischer.

There are three other X-factors worth considering when discussing McConnell's vulnerability -- two that favor Democrats and one that favors the GOP.

First, the Kentucky governorship is a very powerful office, so if Beshear wanted he could well make life very uncomfortable for McConnell in the coming months. The question is whether the newly minted governor really wants to put his political capital on the line so quickly and against the unquestioned godfather of Kentucky politics.

Second, don't underestimate the symbolic importance of knocking off the leader of the opposition party. Back in 2004, George Allen, then the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told anyone who would listen that beating Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) would be the equivalent of winning three Senate seats. Democrats -- especially those in Washington and national donors who pay attention to national politics -- are sure to feel the same way about McConnell. That could well mean millions in donations to the Democratic nominee and, more importantly, an extended onslaught against McConnell by independent progressive groups.

Third, if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the Democratic presidential nominee and Luallen is the Democratic Senate nominee, you can almost write the Republican ads yourself. "Crit Luallen: Kentucky's own Hillary Clinton." Cue the eerie music and grainy pictures.

There are too many balls in the air in the state to draw firm conclusions about what Fletcher's loss means to McConnell's future. At best for McConnell, yesterday's results are a non-factor; at worst, it serves as a spur to Democrats to topple the figure who has stood astride Bluegrass State politics for the last two decades.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 7, 2007; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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