By BERRY CRAIG
Kentucky Democrats are abuzz over their party’s chances to grab Sen. Jim Bunning’s seat next year.
“Bunning is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent of the cycle,” wrote John McArdle in Roll Call.
The Kentucky senate race will doubtless attract national attention next year. It’s big news when a Republican senator seems to be in big trouble in a Red State. Bunning is also feuding with the GOP Senate minority leader, who happens to be Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator.
Once allies, Bunning and Sen. Mitch McConnell have become “Kentucky’s latest version of the Hatfields and McCoys,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper.
Bunning claims McConnell wants him to bow out, evidently because McConnell thinks Bunning will lose. Apparently, other Republicans also believe Bunning should step aside for a stronger candidate. The 77-year-old Bunning vows he’s running.
So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who Bunning barely beat in 2004, and Atty. Gen. Jack Conway are the only big-name Democrats who want Bunning’s job. Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a retired customs officer, declared her candidacy in the May, 2010, primary before Mongiardo or Conway said they were running. But she has little chance against Mongiardo and Bunning.
“I think this election is ours to lose,” said State Rep. Will Coursey, a Benton Democrat. “We think Bunning is beatable.”
Pundits say the Democrats are in excellent shape to best the cantankerous Bunning, an ultra-conservative – even by Kentucky standards -- who is given to making strange statements. (On the campaign trail in 2004, Bunning said Mongiardo, whose ancestry is Italian, looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.)
Coursey calls Mongiardo and Conway “great candidates,” adding, “…I think we can’t go wrong either way.” More than a few Bluegrass State Democrats agree. But some party leaders are choosing sides.
Gov. Steve Beshear is for Mongiardo. The state’s two Democratic U.S. representatives – Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth – are backing Conway. State House Speaker Greg Stumbo is on the Conway team. So are Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson and State Auditor Crit Luallen.
Labor Secretary J.R. Gray, a former union official and veteran state representative whom Coursey succeeded, is for Mongiardo. That’s important because organized labor is a big part of the Democrats’ base in Kentucky, which is not a right-to-work state.
Mongiardo – dubbed “Dr. Dan” because he is a physician -- and Conway are considered union-friendly. The state AFL-CIO endorsed them both when they were elected in 2007. This time, the labor group hasn’t weighed in behind either candidate and might not.
“We expect to see a lot of Dr. Dan and Jack Conway between now and next May,” said Jeff Wiggins, a Steelworker and president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO. But Wiggins, who is on the Kentucky AFL-CIO Executive Board, cautioned, “It’s way too early to tell” who – if anybody – the state labor federation might endorse in the Democratic primary.
“But we for sure won’t endorse Bunning or any of the other Republicans who are supposedly interested in Bunning’s seat,” Wiggins said. “Bunning is one of the most anti-union senators in Washington. None of the others are our friends, either.”
Dr. Rand Paul, Trey Grayson, David Williams and Cathy Bailey are mentioned as possible GOP primary candidates.
Paul, an opthamologist, is the son of former congressman and unsuccessful presidential candidate Ron Paul. Grayson is Kentucky secretary of state and Williams is state senate president. Bailey is a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia.
The filing deadline for the May primary is months away. Even so, no other Democratic heavyweights seem inclined to join the Mongiardo-Conway bout, which Coursey hopes won’t be too bruising. “We don’t need to bloody ourselves up,” he said.
But early evidence suggests they may duke it out. The Mongiardo camp has thrown what looks like the first punch.
“The lieutenant governor would welcome the opportunity for Democratic voters in Kentucky to compare their records, their values and their stands on the issues and make a determination, and we are confident what that decision will be,” McArdle quoted Kim Geveden, a Mongiardo campaign consultant.
In Kentucky, “values” means social issues like abortion, gun control and gay marriage.
Geveden’s challenge, “signaled that their campaign is likely to paint [Conway]…as a Louisville liberal,” columnist Al Cross wrote in the Courier-Journal. For a long time, there was a strong anti-Louisville bias among Kentucky voters. That’s changed. McConnell is from Louisville.
But “liberal” is still largely synonymous with “leper” in Kentucky politics. Kentucky is among the reddest of the Red States. Many, if not most, Bluegrass State Democrats are among the bluest of the Blue Dogs. A lot of them vote Democratic in local elections, but also cast ballots for Republicans such as Bunning, McConnell and John McCain.
Mongiardo, from Hazard, population about 4,800, may indeed try to paint Conway as a liberal from the state’s largest city. If he does and Conway wins anyway, Mongiardo, however unintentionally, will have given the Republicans more ammo to shoot at Conway in November.
Of course, no matter who wins, the GOP will slam the Democrat as – you guessed it – a “socialist.”
Anyway, Ronald Reagan – not one of my favorite presidents -- used to talk about “the Eleventh Commandment -- Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
The Mongiardo – and Conway – campaigns would do well to modify Reagan’s admonition to say “any fellow Democrat” and agree to stick by it between now and next May.
When candidates beat up on each other in a primary fight, it can cost their party the general election, the one that counts.