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.
"Kentucky would suffer a dramatic reversal of fortune instantly to trade me in for a rookie who's only a few years younger than I am and who doesn't have any chance in the world of ever being there long enough to have any chance to be in the position I'm in," says the 66-year-old senator, who is six years older than his Democratic opponent.
But McConnell faces a complicated set of problems in this race: an unpopular party even in this conservative state, energized Democratic activists who have made "Ditch Mitch" a popular slogan, and a perception among some voters, that he, like Daschle four years ago, has become too much of a Washington figure.
"He's basically running on his clout," said Al Cross, a longtime political columnist in the state who now teaches at the University of Kentucky. "Everything else is not in his favor, Bush is unpopular, the Republican Party is unpopular, Washington is unpopular, and he's closely associated with all of those things."
Those conditions have helped vault Lunsford into contention. Twice defeated in gubernatorial primaries, the Louisville businessman infuriated Kentucky Democrats by endorsing the GOP candidate for governor in 2003 after he lost the Democratic race.
But like Democratic candidates around the country, Lunsford blames McConnell for the poor economy, links him constantly to President Bush and casts himself as an advocate for "change."
Despite the implications of his race for Democratic power in Congress, Lunsford largely distances himself from the national party, which is not popular in this state even as President Bush's support has plummeted. He has not allied himself with Sen. Barack Obama, whose ads are all over Kentucky because it borders Indiana, Ohio and Missouri, states that Obama is aggressively contesting.
"I'm not going up there to be Harry Reid's 56th vote," Lunsford said in a debate with McConnell last week, referring to the Senate majority leader. "I'm going up there to represent Kentucky."
Democrats, wary of turning McConnell into a conservative martyr, are also avoiding the Daschle comparison, and the former Senate Democratic leader, now a top Obama adviser, would not comment for this report.
Democrats here, meanwhile, say that having Obama at the top of the ticket will provide little help for Lunsford. Just 8 percent of the state's residents are black, one of the lowest percentages in the South, and Obama is not particularly popular in Kentucky. And Obama's campaign has not built a heavy turnout operation in this state that could help Lunsford.
In addition to President Clinton's appearance last week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who won the Democratic primary here over Obama by 35 points, has campaigned with Lunsford. Lunsford aides believe that the Clintons will help woo rural voters.
McConnell grew up and lives in Louisville, but his strongest base of support is in small towns in the western part of the state, and Democrats say Lunsford must minimize his margin of defeat there and then get strong turnout in the state's more liberal areas around Louisville and Lexington.
McConnell thinks these voters, many of whom are registered Democrats but have embraced Republicans including President Bush in recent years, are the reason he won't lose.
Daschle "represented a kind of red state and led a leftist party in the Senate," McConnell said in an interview. "I don't have that problem. This is a right-of-center state, I'm a comfortable right-of-center senator."