RUSSELLVILLE — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said his vote for a $700 billion bailout of the nation's financial system shouldn't be considered a political liability even as the issue has become a major theme of his re-election race.
"It's not fair to paint this as some kind of fatal vote when you've got such a huge bipartisan majority voting for it," McConnell said Saturday in his first detailed discussion with Kentucky reporters of the vote he took 11 days ago.
The bill passed the Senate 74-25 on Oct. 1, and two days later in the House on a 263-171 vote.
In the last month, McConnell has seen his race against Democrat Bruce Lunsford tighten. The double-digit lead he enjoyed in most polls this summer has shrunk to single digits, even in his campaign's own survey results. But McConnell declined to blame his drop in the polls on his vote on the $700 billion plan for the federal government to buy up troubled securities infected by bad mortgages.
Instead, he chalked it up to the normal course of campaigns that "get tighter toward the end." And he defended the bailout bill as a way to stave off further financial disaster.
Still, in the days since the plan's approval, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has plummeted, ramping up the concern of an already anxious electorate.
"The Dow would be in a lot worse shape if we had done nothing," McConnell said after riding through Russellville in the Logan County Tobacco and Heritage Festival parade. "The rescue package is the beginning of the way back. Nobody said it was going to fix things instantly, and it's not going to fix things instantly."
Some voters in Russellville — the county seat of heavily Democratic, yet conservative, Logan County — echoed that sentiment.
"I think Congress had to do something," said Bill Pearson, a Russellville Democrat who said he's supporting McConnell.
Pearson, 58, said Americans just need to give the government's actions time to work.
Other Democrats said the passage of the bill only hardened their opposition to McConnell.
"This is a Band-Aid approach they have instituted," said Charles Covington, 63, of Auburn. "They're just lying to us again about this whole situation. Will that benefit the taxpayers? No. It will benefit Wall Street."
McConnell, however, argues that the move was necessary to lubricate a credit system that was about to grind to a halt, drying up loans for businesses and individuals.
"Do we do unpopular things from time to time in government? Yeah. But I think the feeling about it has gotten better," he said. "I thought it was important to do for the country regardless of when it came up, whether it came up during an election or not. We're not sent there to avoid doing important things for America."
Lunsford and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, however, both targeted McConnell with ads that prominently mention the bailout bill as well as the broader issue of the economy. Both commercials criticize McConnell for voting for a 1999 financial market deregulation bill — passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton — and then approving the bailout bill.
McConnell called it "laughable" that the DSCC would run such an ad, considering its chairman, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, also voted for the bailout. McConnell's newest TV ad, launched Friday evening, makes the same point.
"The ability of this to be used politically when there was overwhelming bipartisan support for it is quite limited," McConnell said.
Kentucky's congressional delegation split evenly on the bailout bill. Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, as well as Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, and Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, opposed it. McConnell and Reps. Ron Lewis, R-Cecilia, Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, voted for it.
"If my opponent wants to hit me, he's hitting Congressman Yarmuth. If he wants to hit me, he's hitting Barack Obama; he's hitting (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi," McConnell said.
Lunsford, who ran in the Race for a Cure in Louisville that raised money for breast cancer research and campaigned Saturday in Greenup County, has tiptoed around questions about whether he would have voted for the bill.
"It's not about the bailout per se," said Cary Stemle, Lunsford's spokesman. "The bailout is the culmination of eight years of Bush-McConnell economic policies. That's more of what we're talking about."
Reach Ryan Alessi in the Frankfort bureau at (502) 227-4390.