Political Paddock: Special elections reveal little about U.S. Senate race

Herald-Leader Political WriterDecember 2, 2013 

The famous psychic Edgar Cayce was born near Hopkinsville.

He died in 1945, but Cayce would have a better chance of telling you the results of next November's U.S. Senate race than anything that might be gleaned from next week's special elections in Lexington and Western Kentucky.

It's tempting and often worthwhile to look at off-year special elections as gauges of voter moods and priorities and the strengths of a federal campaign's ground game, but the Dec. 10 elections for the state House and Senate won't tell you anything about next November.

Trying to learn something about a statewide race from Lexington's 13th Senate District, where voters will chose a replacement for Democrat Kathy Stein, is a nonstarter. The district, which primarily covers downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky, is significantly more liberal and more black than the rest of the state.

If there was a race to use as a bellwether — resist the temptation — it would be in the 7th House District, covering Union County and portions of Henderson and Daviess counties. Democrat Kim Humphrey and Republican Suzanne Miles are battling to replace Democrat John Arnold, who resigned in September amid accusations of sexual harassment.

But there's not a lot to learn there, except that a Democrat is running surprisingly strong in an area that has grown increasingly conservative.

Neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell nor likely Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes have made any effort to use the election as a trial run of their ground games.

Aside from an appearance at a Democratic rally in Union County in October, Grimes has had little contact with the Humphrey campaign. McConnell, who Miles said Monday wrote her campaign its first check, has kept a close eye on the race, as he does with every Kentucky election, and he has provided staff and other nuts-and-bolts assets.

Miles said McConnell "has been checking in," and Allison Moore, his campaign spokeswoman, said, "McConnell fully supports Suzanne and is rooting for her to win on Dec. 10."

With only 60 days to win over voters in the special elections, the campaigns of Grimes and McConnell didn't have much time to put their teams on the streets.

If they did, they probably would find those streets empty. Turnout is expected to be abysmal.

Richard House, supervisor of elections in Daviess County, said Monday that only about 40 of the 7th House District's 17,000 registered voters had filed absentee ballots so far.

When lawmakers redrew the state's legislative boundaries during the summer, it forced the counties in the district to move the lines in 17 of 20 precincts. It has been, as House put it, a "logistics nightmare."

"This is a completely different campaign than any of the others taking place right now across the state and has several unique challenges that both candidates have had to deal with," said Bryan Thomas, Humphrey's campaign manager.

The short window, new precincts and the Thanksgiving holiday all make for a cracked crystal ball. But perhaps most importantly, the campaigns of both state House candidates and both U.S. Senate candidates — hold onto your hats — agreed that the race could not be seen in any way as a harbinger.

Keep that in mind next week if you see Grimes or McConnell taking credit for a victory.

Kelly Knight

McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, has asked Lexingtonian Kelly Knight to head a women's fundraising effort on McConnell's behalf.

Knight will be chairwoman of a group called the Leader's Circle, which is based on a similar effort that Knight was involved with on behalf of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Knight was credited with raising millions of dollars for Romney, and she and companion Joe Craft, a coal magnate and heavyweight donor to the University of Kentucky, have raised more than $1 million this year for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

Speaking of Chao, Knight said it was "a privilege to stand alongside someone who has been such a role model to women in Kentucky and nationwide."

"Like her husband, Secretary Chao recognizes the integral role women have played in both their personal upbringings and professional successes," Knight said.

Knight has been rumored in recent days to be a potential running mate to Agriculture Commissioner James Comer should he decide to run for governor in 2015.

When asked about the idea, Knight said her "focus is on doing everything I can to make sure Kentucky continues to have Sen. Mitch McConnell as its advocate and voice in Washington."

Time heals

In 1984, the Herald-Leader reported that state House candidate Shirley Cunningham accused Jerry Lundergan, a former state representative and Grimes' father, of voter intimidation and possible violations of some black voters' civil rights.

Quoted in that story was a young lawyer named Reggie Thomas, who is a formidable Democratic candidate in next week's special election in the 13th Senate District in Lexington. At the time, Thomas criticized Lundergan, who had just lost to Cunningham in the Democratic primary by 27 votes. Thomas said Lundergan's alleged doings "certainly have a chilling effect on people's right to vote."

"This kind of action really smacks of actions in the 1910s, when blacks in the South were intimidated not to vote," Thomas said at the time, referring to accusations that Lundergan and his campaign had harassed voters.

Almost 30 years later, Thomas said Monday that he remembered the campaign but not the article or accusations. He said Lundergan was "very supportive" of his last campaign.

"In politics, differences of opinion come and go," Thomas said. "If the question is do I consider Jerry Lundergan a friend today, the answer is unequivocally yes. And I'm going to do everything I can to help Alison next year."

As was the case in 1984, Lundergan could not be reached for comment Monday.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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