Nipping at McConnell's Heels

In 1984, during Mitch McConnell's nascent run for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democrat Walter "Dee" Huddleston, McConnell gained considerable traction with an ad showing a pack of bloodhounds scouring the country for the incumbent. Huddleston had a reputation for being something of a senatorial non-entity with a penchant for missing roll call votes. McConnell rode the bloodhounds (and Ronald Reagan's coattails) to the slightest of victories, setting him on the path to his current position as Senate minority leader.

Now it's McConnell the bloodhounds are chasing.

When the minority leader showed up at the Aug. 4 Fancy Farm picnic in rural west Kentucky -- the annual and unofficial launch of the commonwealth's fall campaign season -- there was a pack of dappled hounds, tails wagging, waiting for him. The man holding the dogs' leashes, Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo, is the first of many rumored Democrats (as well as a Republican or two) to announce he is exploring a run against McConnell in 2008. As Stumbo toured the picnic with the dogs, his volunteers handed out stickers that read, "Hunting for a real U.S. Senator."

The stunt, which Stumbo later described to me as a bit of "good-natured fun," highlighted McConnell's increasing vulnerability. As more candidates emerge to challenge him, the attacks are likely to be a lot less good natured and lot less fun for the minority leader.

Nationally there has been a target on McConnell's back ever since he was promoted to minority leader this year. He is, after all, one of President Bush's chief cheerleaders in the Senate. And for Democrats, a McConnell defeat holds a certain allure, retribution for then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's loss in 2004.

Political vendettas notwithstanding, the real concern for McConnell and his supporters should be that his 2008 Senate race was already a prevalent issue at Fancy Farm. Kentucky is in the midst of a heated gubernatorial race, with Democrats eager to chase McConnell's former protégé, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, out of the Governor's Mansion in November. Yet partisans are campaigning almost as hard against McConnell as they are against Fletcher. Not only did they bring out the bloodhounds, but Fancy Farm was littered with stickers imploring people to "Ditch Mitch." When McConnell got up to speak, he was booed so lustily and so often he ran out of time and had to cut his remarks short.

Being elevated to minority leader this year has not done McConnell any favors in his home state. Forced to frequently and publicly defend an unpopular president and his even less popular war, McConnell's constituents have charged him with being out of touch with the political climate in Kentucky. During a July CNN appearance he insisted Kentuckians are "overwhelmingly" on the side of the current troop surge in Iraq. But the Louisville Courier-Journal was quick to point out that its February Bluegrass Poll showed 52 percent of Kentuckians wanted McConnell to oppose the surge. Only 40 percent thought he should support it.

McConnell has also gotten flack for his handling of the immigration bill earlier this summer. He ultimately voted against it -- a sop to his Kentucky base -- but he was largely absent from the debate preceding the vote, successfully angering both critics and proponents of the bill.

While McConnell is certainly more vulnerable now than at any time since taking office, his ability to fundraise and strategize means it's risky to start drafting his political eulogy just yet.

"He's one of the best [political strategists] Kentucky's ever produced," said Dr. Paul Blanchard, executive director of government relations for Eastern Kentucky University and a noted Kentucky political analyst. "I've had him in my classroom several times to explain political strategy. It's textbook stuff." Witness his campaign against Huddleston. McConnell was the only Republican that year to defeat a Democratic incumbent in a Senate race, even with Reagan's landslide victory. He went on to orchestrate a Republican resurgence in Kentucky, where, despite its social conservatism, registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans three to two.

Additionally, McConnell is sitting on $5.9 million specifically for next year's race, according to an April report from his re-election committee. By any measure he remains a formidable opponent.

To take his seat, Kentucky Democrats will need to succeed on two fronts: Trumpeting McConnell's link to Bush generally and to the war specifically, while at the same time harnessing any momentum from this year's state races to generate a sense of inevitability around a Democratic victory in 2008.

McConnell's continued support for the war is clearly his biggest liability, with the potential to alienate many of his moderate supporters. A campaign called Iraq Summer, which was organized by a progressive coalition of independent organizations named Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, has targeted McConnell with a goal of binding him more closely to the war's outcome. The campaign's workers insist they've tapped into statewide discontent, which was evident at Fancy Farm where condemnation of the war managed to bridge the usually extreme partisan rift.

Any sensible McConnell opponent should take some cues from the Iraq Summer leaders, with the war as a lens on the minority leader's overall failure to guide his party toward acceptable solutions on Iraq, immigration, or any of a host of issues making political hay across the commonwealth and the nation. It's a charge even the noted campaign contortionist will find it difficult to duck.

The Democrats could also generate some momentum for 2008 with a historic victory in this year's state elections. When Fletcher was elected in 2003, becoming the commonwealth's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, it wasn't a complete surprise. Voters were receptive to the Republican promises of change. What was surprising was the speed with which Fletcher managed to get himself embroiled in a scandal over hiring and firing state employees based on political affiliation. The merit-hiring scandal left him largely hamstrung over the last four years and makes him extremely vulnerable in 2007.

Victory isn't guaranteed for the Democratic candidate, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, but if he is elected in November it would mark not just a return to power for the Democrats, but the first time an incumbent governor has ever been voted out of office in Kentucky. Of course, until a 1992 constitutional amendment, governors weren't allowed to serve consecutive terms, but veteran Kentucky political writer Al Cross suggests this historical first might still go a long way toward energizing the Democratic base.

"When you have an event like that, the ouster of a governor, a historic change in power, that's the kind of thing that really gets Democrats' blood moving," he said. "They're excited about being Democrats. About knocking off a big Republican."

Maybe excited enough to knock off an even bigger Republican in 2008.

Despite the flurry of early activity, there are likely to be few additional developments in the race until after the gubernatorial elections. Democratic leaders say they don't want to divert any energy or funds from Beshear's election. Republicans are content to wait a while and see which way the political winds are blowing.

But the bloodhounds are out, and they're already nipping at McConnell's heels.