Lunsford Favored in Kentucky Senate Primary

Posted May 13, 2008 at 10:56am

The clock is ticking down on Kentucky’s Senate Democratic primary race, and although businessman Greg Fischer has shown an ability to steadily pick up polling points in recent weeks, the gap may still be too wide for him to overtake health care executive Bruce Lunsford before Tuesday.

Coming off his failed 2007 gubernatorial run, Lunsford entered the seven-way primary race in January with a clear name identification advantage over Fischer, a first-time candidate. Lunsford, who is personally very wealthy, also entered the race with the backing of national Democratic leaders.

And though various polling numbers have shown Fisher gaining about 20 points on Lunsford over the past four weeks, a survey released Tuesday by the Lexington Herald-Leader showed Fischer was still trailing Lunsford, 43 percent to 23 percent. That poll of 500 likely Democratic voters was conducted May 7-9 and had a margin of error of 4 points.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will earn the right to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) — who faces a token primary challenge of his own next week — in November.

Fischer’s political director argued Tuesday that the campaign is actually peaking at the right time and that the latest polling numbers don’t give the most accurate picture of the race.

For one, the Herald-Leader poll was taken before Fischer’s campaign rolled out its most recent television campaign, which hits Lunsford on a particularly touchy subject for Democratic voters: the fact that after Lunsford dropped his first gubernatorial bid in 2003, he went on to endorse the Republican candidate, Ernie Fletcher, after a particularly contentious primary battle.

It’s a decision that Lunsford has repeatedly apologized for and during his 2007 gubernatorial bid, Lunsford appeared to redeem himself in the eyes of many in the party when, after again dropping his bid, he quickly moved to back now-Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

But the Fisher ad has the potential to reignite what has long been a strong anti-Fletcher sentiment among Democratic voters.

Lunsford has already been forced on the defensive about the issue. At a primary debate on Monday that appeared on Kentucky television, Fischer made the Fletcher endorsement a key line of attack.

“You’re not going to have to worry about me flipping on Democratic principles,” Fischer said.

Kim Geveden, Fischer’s political director, said Tuesday that the campaign strategically waited until the last week and a half of the campaign to unveil the Fletcher/Lunsford ad in an effort to maximize its impact at a time when voters are finally paying close attention to the race.

Noting that the Herald-Leader poll had 14 percent of voters in the “other” or “undecided” column, Geveden said, “With the ad we have out now and ads still to come combined and with the large undecided, I think we can get this into the low single digits … and then we think it comes down to Election Day. And on Election Day there’s two variables in play there, and that’s who turns their voters out and how the undecided breaks. I think both those variables strongly favor Greg Fischer.”

But Kentucky Democratic observers say it would be a tall order for Fischer to change the dynamic of the race enough in a week to knock off Lunsford.

For their part, Lunsford’s advisers say they aren’t simply sitting on their polling lead in the final week of the campaign.

“We’re not taking anything for granted — we’ve still got a week to go in the primary,” Lunsford spokeswoman Allison Haley said.

But some Bluegrass State Democrats are already looking forward to a Lunsford/ McConnell matchup this fall.

Kentucky Democratic leaders, emboldened by their successful takeover of the governor’s mansion last year, say a Democratic tide is on the rise in the Bluegrass State. Now they’d like nothing more than to knock off McConnell, who is the de facto head of the Kentucky GOP.

National Democratic groups began taking shots at McConnell last fall, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also run ads against the Minority Leader.

“This race is about Mitch McConnell for Bruce as well as all the candidates in the Democratic field,” Haley said. “There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm and support across the state from Democrats and Republicans alike to unseat Mitch McConnell.”

But with the emergence of Sen. Barrack Obama (Ill.) as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, some Democratic observers say Democrats might have a tougher time taking down the well-funded McConnell than they would if someone else was at the top of the ticket.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is expected to win the Democratic presidential primary handily Tuesday, and, depending on how poorly Obama performs in the state, he may choose not to play there come November. That would be bad news for Democrats looking to keep the pressure on McConnell.

For the eventual Democratic Senatorial candidate, “the tricky tightrope would be he has got to use Obama where it matters, which is Louisville, Lexington and the urban centers … and then he’s got to kind of nullify him, run from him, outside” those urban areas, one Kentucky Democratic insider said Tuesday. “In the rural areas are where Barack would be more of a drawback.”

Of course that dynamic could change if Obama and Clinton were on the same ticket, in which case Democrats could make use of the popular Clinton name in Kentucky throughout the Senatorial campaign.

Republicans say the various scenarios that are already being dreamed up by Democrats in this race prove that they are grasping at straws in the Bluegrass State.

“Mitch McConnell is an icon in the state of Kentucky and will be easily re-elected by his constituents in November,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said Tuesday.