McConnell Needs Kentucky to Deliver

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

PADUCAH, Ky. -- If Barack Obama wins the presidency on Nov. 4, Mitch McConnell, the Senate's minority leader, could be one of the few obstacles confronting Democrats as they seek to enact a sweeping agenda and roll back eight years of Bush administration initiatives.

But with his opponent tying him to a faltering economy and an unpopular president, it will take everything McConnell has simply to hold on to his seat.

The architect of the revival of the Republican Party in this state, McConnell is fighting for his political survival and to avoid the fate of former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who was ousted in 2004 by voters who rejected the argument that his position as his party's leader in the Senate gave him an unparalleled ability to deliver for his state.

With polls showing Democrat Bruce Lunsford trailing McConnell by only a few points, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pumped money into advertising attacking McConnell earlier this month. Former president Bill Clinton campaigned alongside Lunsford on Friday in this western Kentucky city along the state's border with Illinois.

Democrats, already favored to win the presidency and hold both houses of Congress, have set their sights on controlling 60 seats in the Senate, which would give them a filibuster-proof majority. To get there, they'll need an upset or two in a deep-red state such as Georgia, Mississippi or Kentucky, where Bush won by 20 points in 2004.

"You cannot pass a single bill in the U.S. Congress outside of the budget with just a majority vote if 41 senators decide to filibuster and shut you down," Clinton told a crowd of more than 500 here. "And the man who was the leader of implementing President Bush's policies, if you leave him there, will be the leader of stopping a new direction for America every time they can muster 41 votes. That's why this Mitch McConnell seat is so important."

McConnell, looking to fire up Republicans in the state, is employing the flip side of the same argument. In a fundraising e-mail to supporters last week, he called his reelection bid "the key battle being waged by the liberals who want to have total domination in the House and Senate."

"I run into people and they say, 'Why are you having a hard race?' " McConnell told a crowd of Republicans at an event last week in Marion, another western Kentucky town. "Well, I'm a bigger target than I used to be . . . As a result of being chosen by my colleagues to be the Republican leader, I've got people all over America who would love to see me lose, so there's money coming in from San Francisco and Chicago and New York trying to tear down your senator."

While expressing confidence, McConnell, first elected in 1984, is doing his most intense campaigning in years. Known in Washington as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker who draws little attention to himself, the Republican leader is crisscrossing Kentucky on a bus, making several stops each day to greet voters as part of a two-week tour that will take him to more than half of the state's 120 counties.

On the stump, McConnell is making an aggressive attempt to both personalize himself and ensure that Kentuckians recognize his influence in Washington. While Lunsford has blasted McConnell's wife, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, for being on the campaign trail at a time of rising unemployment, she travels with him to each stop, describing "my low-maintenance husband" who does his own laundry, picks up his own dry-cleaning and cooks well.

Both Chao and McConnell tell audiences that Kentuckians approach them and say how "proud" they are that McConnell is in the leadership on Capitol Hill. As the couple notes at every stop, McConnell is only the second man from the Bluegrass State ever elected leader of his party in the Senate.

With that power comes clout, says McConnell. And while John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, spends every day criticizing legislators' earmarks for their states, McConnell boasts of the projects he has brought to Kentucky -- a total of $500 million for the state last year, he said last week. He lists every project he has brought to every town he visits, and argues that Lunsford couldn't do the same.

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