Jack Conway battling GOP's effort to nationalize Kentucky's U.S. Senate race

Opposition will try to tie him to Obama

bestep@herald-leader.comOctober 3, 2010 

  • John William "Jack" Conway

    Party: Democrat

    Born: July 5, 1969

    Residence: Louisville

    Education: Bachelor's degree in public policy, Duke University; law degree, George Washington University National Law Center

    Occupation: Attorney

    Elected office: Kentucky attorney general, 2007-present

    Family: Wife, Elizabeth Davenport Conway; one daughter

    Web site: http://jackconway.org

A casual observer of Kentucky's U.S. Senate race might think there is more than one Democratic nominee.

Attorney General Jack Conway's name will be on the ballot, but his Republican opponent, Rand Paul, criticizes President Barack Obama in stump speeches more than he does Conway.

Paul also targets House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Harry Reid, while groups supporting Paul have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads — and will likely spend more — to paint Conway as being in lockstep with liberal Democratic leaders.

The tactic is called nationalizing the race, and the reasons behind it are clear.

The nation's massive debt has deepened under Obama, and some policies pushed through by Democratic leaders the last two years, such as the landmark health care overhaul, are not popular with many voters in this mostly conservative state.

Republicans see tying Conway to national Democrats as a winning strategy, said Scott Lasley, a political-science professor at Western Kentucky University.

"I don't think Obama and Pelosi are winners in Kentucky," Lasley said.

The same strategy is playing out in Senate and House races around the country, and will remain a consistent theme in the remaining month of the campaign.

Conway, however, argues he is a fiscally responsible moderate who would buck his party's leaders when it was in the state's best interest.

As an example, Conway points to his opposition to a law aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, called cap and trade because it would cap emissions and allow polluters to trade credits to meet the limits. The administration supported such a law in 2009 and Democrats pushed it through the House.

Conway, however, said he would have voted no, in part because it wouldn't have protected Kentucky's coal industry and low electricity rates.

"Here's an example of where I'm being independent for Kentucky and breaking with the administration," Conway said in one speech.

Health care

Another key Obama initiative, the health care reform law, has become a defining issue in the Kentucky Senate race.

The law will mean health insurance coverage for tens of millions more Americans, stop insurance companies from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions and close a gap in Medicare drug coverage, among other things.

It would require many people to buy insurance or pay a penalty — a rule that opponents argue is unconstitutional.

Republicans and allied pro-business groups say the law will increase business costs, bring onerous reporting burdens and discourage companies from hiring.

Paul acknowledges there were problems in health care, such as high expenses, portability and difficulty getting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. However, market-based approaches would have been better in dealing with those issues, he said, such as allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines and establishing multi-year health policies.

Instead, the administration opted for "bigger government, more taxes, a big federal takeover" of health care, he said.

Paul favors repealing the law.

Conway said the law isn't perfect, but he supports it.

"I would have voted for it because there are 654,000 Kentuckians who will get access to health care, there are 45,000 small Kentucky businesses that will get assistance with premiums and kids now can be covered until the age of 26 — that's tens of thousands of kids," Conway said. "I think the question for Rand Paul is why does he want to repeal all of that, throw away all of that?"

Kentucky Republicans say the issue is one example of how Conway would be another vote for Democrats' liberal agenda.

"If Conway goes to Washington, whose column is he going to be in?" said James H. Weise, GOP chairman of the state's 2nd Congressional District in Western Kentucky. "Another vote for Obama and Pelosi and Dirty Harry."

Although there are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans, the state is conservative and tends to vote Republican in federal elections. Obama lost Kentucky to Sen. John McCain by 17 points in 2008, and if anything, conservative sentiment has only deepened since.

At a speech to about 30 people at a diner in Manchester last week, Paul said Republicans are fortunate this year to have the best recruiter ever.

"He does this by being wrong on every political issue of the day, and that's our president," Paul said.

A protest vote?

To counter the strategy of tying him to national Democrats, Conway has tried to make the campaign about Paul's views.

The Republican's libertarian-leaning philosophy of reducing the size of government would put at risk a range of programs that help Kentuckians, from federal support for education to workplace safety and aid to fight drugs, Conway has said.

"He's against every single federal government program except those that feather his nest," Conway said in a speech.

But many people see voting for Paul as a way to send a message to Washington about their unhappiness — a protest vote, in some ways, observers said.

Conway faces a tougher task than his opponent, some analysts said.

"Rand just has to not screw up. Jack actually has to run a race and make it happen for himself," said Jim Cauley, a Democratic political strategist.

Part of that involves going after Paul, as Conway has, but he also needs to define his vision for people and give them a reason to support him, analysts said.

Paul's primary opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, tried to portray Paul's ideas as strange, and the argument didn't work.

"Conway has to give Democrats a reason it's important to vote for him other than he's not Rand Paul," said Danny Briscoe, a longtime Democratic strategist in Kentucky. "He needs some buzz and some excitement and it's got to be more than he (Paul) is nuts."

Conway advocates a number of proposals to boost the economy and cut the deficit, including a tax credit and loan funds for small businesses; shutting down offshore tax shelters and closing loopholes that he says encourage American companies to invest overseas; and letting Medicare negotiate for lower prescription-drug prices.

Asked on Friday what he saw as the top issue in the race, he said, "Putting the people of Kentucky first."

Most of his commercials so far have focused on claims that Paul's ideas are extreme or out of touch.

Paul, in contrast, has been able to air positive commercials defining himself and his goals, while letting outside groups attack Conway.

Conway also needs to energize his supporters to overcome the enthusiasm among Republicans who think it's their year to take back control of Congress, observers said.

Spending time on the campaign trail will help on that front, supporters said.

"When you're in a close race, you've got to get out and blow your horn and shake hands and get your shoe leather worn out," said Mason County Judge-Executive James "Buddy" Gallenstein, a member of the state Democratic Party executive committee. "In a close race you've got to have a ground play."

A survivor

Conway has shown he can survive a tough race.

He trailed Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the polls right up until Election Day in the primary before eking out a 4,173-vote victory — a margin of less than 1 percent.

In a win that close, many factors could have made the difference, observers said.

One was money. Conway loaned his campaign more than $525,000 and outspent Mongiardo by $1.3 million.

Conway also got a boost from endorsements by several top Democrats, including former Sen. Wendell Ford, an icon in the party.

Gov. Steve Beshear backed Mongiardo, his 2007 running mate, but not strongly. Recordings of Mongiardo that surfaced on the Internet, in which he used profanity and criticized Beshear, likely hurt his fund-raising among Beshear supporters.

Conway also took a more firm stance than Mongiardo on the health care overhaul, which cost Mongiardo support among liberals.

And on Election Day, heavy turnout in the mayor's race in Louisville, Conway's home, helped seal his razor-thin margin.

"If you change any one of those things, it's a different outcome," said Kim Geveden, who ran Mongiardo's campaign.

The fall race is very different, of course. For one thing, it's not likely Conway and allied groups will be able to outspend Paul and supporters.

But Conway believes he is in position to win another close victory.

With a month to go, polls show he is much closer to Paul than he was to Mongiardo at the same point in the primary.

"The people of Kentucky are seeing what a big risk (Paul) would be," Conway said. "He is out of touch with Kentucky."

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