It’s Down the Homestretch in Kentucky

Posted May 19, 2008 at 3:28pm

In Kentucky, today’s primary contests aren’t expected to offer a whole lot in the way of a good old-fashioned political horse race.

The Democratic presidential primary contest was never really expected to be a competitive affair, and there also appears to be little doubt about the outcome of the Senate Democratic primary. In fact, a rather quiet Democratic primary race in the 2nd district, where Rep. Ron Lewis (R) is retiring, seems to be the only race that has pundits on the fence about who will emerge.

On Monday, SurveyUSA released a new poll in the seven-way Democratic Senate primary that showed health care executive and former gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford with a 21-point lead over his closest rival, businessman Greg Fischer.

The poll of 629 likely Democratic voters was conducted Friday to Sunday and had a margin of error of 4 points.

After steadily gaining in polling during the spring, Fischer had been hoping that a late push could put him within single-digit striking distance of Lunsford. During the last two weeks of the campaign, Fischer had focused on a particularly touchy subject for Lunsford: the fact that after he dropped his first gubernatorial bid in 2003, Lunsford went on to endorse the Republican candidate, Ernie Fletcher, after a particularly contentious Democratic primary.

It’s a decision that Lunsford has repeatedly had to defend on the campaign trail and that Fischer has made the focus of his last round of television ads.

But it seems those attacks haven’t stuck. Perhaps that’s because Fischer’s ads are being drowned out by Lunsford’s massive commercial buys around the state. But it also might be that Lunsford has redeemed himself in the eyes of state Democrats. After dropping his second gubernatorial bid last year, he moved quickly to back now-Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and was heralded by party leaders for doing so.

Now Lunsford appears to be on course to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who is facing only a token primary challenge today, in the general election. McConnell, with his vaunted political operation and $7.7 million war chest as of March 31, will be the decided frontrunner. The Senator has been airing television ads since November.

Democrats are hoping to build on the momentum that helped the party usher in a Democratic governor last year. But Republicans contend the results of the 2007 gubernatorial election had more to do with voter distaste for the controversial Fletcher than with true excitement for Beshear. Those GOP strategists are quick to point out an early May poll by the Lexington Herald-Leader that put Beshear’s approval rating at less than 40 percent.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as the likely Democratic presidential nominee may not be the best news for a Democrat running statewide in Kentucky.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is expected to win today’s Democratic presidential primary handily, and, depending on how poorly Obama performs today, he may choose not to spend resources in Kentucky in November.

But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has signaled its intent to play in Kentucky. And even if Democrats don’t knock off McConnell, party strategists say tying down the Minority Leader back home will keep him from jetting around the country helping other endangered Republicans with appearances and campaign cash.

But one place where the strategy of tying McConnell down in-state may hurt Democrats is in competitive Kentucky House races.

Anne Northup (R), the five-term Congresswoman who was swept from office in the anti-Republican wave of 2006, is looking to retake her old 3rd district seat this fall from Rep. John Yarmuth (D).

Although one of her fellow Republican challengers, former Louisville Council aide Corley Everett, recently decided to endorse anti-tax activist and former professional football player Chris Thieneman (R) in the primary, Northup should cruise to victory today.

Since joining the race in January (not long after the National Republican Congressional Committee sponsored a survey that showed her polling within the margin of error in a hypothetical rematch with Yarmuth), Northup has been fundraising like the campaign veteran that she is. According to her pre-primary report, she had raised more than $534,000.

But Yarmuth will benefit from an election environment that is expected to again favor Democrats. He is fundraising at a steady clip, showing $846,000 in cash on hand in his pre-primary report. He has also been put on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program, which raises money for vulnerable incumbents.

The other Kentucky Congressional race where McConnell’s presence will be a boon for Republicans is in the open 2nd district race, where the GOP has lined up behind state Sen. Brett Guthrie (R) and Democrats will chose today between State Sen. David Boswell and Daviess County Judge/Executive Reid Haire.

After Lewis’ retirement announcement, Democrats became excited about the 2nd district. Both Boswell and Haire are conservative southern Democrats in the mold of Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) and Rep.-elect Travis Childers (D-Miss.), who won special election victories earlier this month in seats that had long been held by Republicans.

Early in the race, party leaders had been hoping that one of the two would defer to the other to avoid the expense of a primary, but that didn’t happen. And though the race has been mostly devoid of negative campaigning, the eventual winner will start off at a fundraising disadvantage to Guthrie.

According to pre-primary reports, as of the end of April, Guthrie had about $382,000 in cash on hand while neither Haire nor Boswell had more than $40,000 after spending significant funds on their primary races.

Some Republican strategists have also argued that Kentucky’s rural 2nd district, which has a much smaller minority population than either the Mississippi seat or Louisiana seat that Democrats picked up in the special election, is not a place where Democrats will be able to repeat the success they had in the specials.

“Brett Guthrie’s biography and experience will play a prevalent role in the campaign,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said.