Keeling: State officeholders' initiatives stymied; If Grimes wants Senate, speak up

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 24, 2013 

FRANKFORT — Ho-hum.

Just over halfway home, this General Assembly session remains a bit of a bore.

The thorniest issues — pension reform and tax reform — appear headed for a special session or two later in the year.

With those discussions delayed, House Democrats want to go ahead with the nasty business of legislative redistricting but may not get Senate Republicans to agree. Even a few "feel good" initiatives pushed by three relative newcomers to statewide office have encountered more resistance than necessary.

Hemp legislation backed by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer simply positions Kentucky to be ready if and when the feds decide the plant is an innocuous, but useful, weed compared to its evil twin marijuana.

Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen's proposal on special districts just requires a bit of reporting from the entities he refers to as "ghost governments."

And Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, also a Democrat, wants to make it easier for members of the military (and others) serving overseas to vote.

Who could be against any of these bills? Silly question.

With control of the General Assembly split between the two parties, young statewide constitutional officers from either party with ambitions of moving on up the political food chain can't expect to rack up legislative wins easily — if they're even allowed to get a win.

So, with this General Assembly limping along toward the conclusion of yet another lost opportunity to demonstrate real leadership, small wonder Kentucky's political conversation already has turned to the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

Guess I'll go there, too.

Kentucky Democrats would dearly love to retire Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell next year. And his poll numbers suggest it's doable. In a recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll conducted by SurveyUSA, just 17 percent of respondents said they would vote for McConnell no matter who runs against him while 34 percent said they would vote against McConnell no matter who the other candidate is.

Obviously, these numbers could move a lot if you put a real name to McConnell's opponent. Still, you can't spin 17 percent support against a generic opponent into anything positive.

But even if they can't beat McConnell in 2014, Kentucky Democrats dearly need to field a candidate who can force him to focus all his attention and campaign cash on his own re-election instead of helping down-ticket state House candidates.

Once the D's lose that chamber, their party will be wandering in the state's legislative wilderness for decades to come.

What the Democrats need then is someone who at least can make McConnell work as hard as he had to in 2008, when he narrowly beat businessman Bruce Lunsford even though Kentucky went Republican big time in the presidential election.

Doing so will take money, money, more money, still more money, even more money, hard work and the toughness to take the hits McConnell will score and punch back harder.

The list of Democrats capable of giving McConnell such a tussle is short, really short. And the name veterans who might expect the kind of support they would need from the national party already have passed on the opportunity.

Enter Ashley Judd.

Love her. Agree with her on issues. Said all that a few columns ago. Don't know about her toughness, but she should be able to raise the kind of money she would need to compete with McConnell.

Her drawback is she's way liberal for Kentucky, which has many Democrats outside of Jefferson County fretting that having her at the top of their 2014 ticket will be as bad as having President Barack Obama heading the ticket in 2012, when Republicans picked up four House seats and lowered the Democratic advantage in the chamber to 55-45.

I wouldn't go so far. Even though she made her name in Hollywood and now lives in Tennessee, Judd is a Kentucky success story. That counts for something.

She may not be Democrats' best choice as a Senate candidate (unless the race comes down to her University of Kentucky loyalty against McConnell's University of Louisville connections), but I'm not sure she's the albatross around their necks so many Democrats fear.

But fear her they do, which has them casting about for anyone but Judd. Most of the talk has been about Grimes, who has several attributes that seem to make her the perfect candidate to challenge McConnell.

She has won a statewide race. She has no voting record to attack. The highlight of her first 14 months in office has been visiting American troops in the Middle East and her subsequent commitment to making it easier for Kentuckians among those troops to exercise their voting rights.

Who is going to attack her on this issue?

Her family's close relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton gives her access to their nationwide fund-raising network. So, she ought to be able to match McConnell dollar for dollar and then some.

And any daughter of Jerry Lundergan, a former state representative and former Democratic Party chairman who has amassed a fortune in the catering business, has to have inherited more than a little of his moxie.

Admittedly, Grimes has been in her first elective office a very short time. And politicians who reach too far too fast and fail sometimes disappear from the history books. That has to be a consideration for her. But the upsides in taking on McConnell are also significant.

Win, and she's an instant heroine for Democrats in Kentucky and across the nation. Lose but give McConnell such a battle Democrats retain control of the state House, and she pockets a huge IOU from the state party. An IOU that can be cashed in a subsequent campaign for an office of her choosing.

Grimes has lots of options for her political future. She would be a formidable candidate if she challenged 6th District U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in 2014. She could run for re-election, for attorney general or for lieutenant governor in 2015. Or she could take on McConnell. Her choice.

But if it's the latter, there's no reason to wait on Judd's decision.

Last one in starts out behind.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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