An increasing number of outside groups are inserting themselves into Kentucky's U.S. Senate race with an array of advertising that is clogging mailboxes, TV news shows and talk-radio programs.
Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, particularly, is getting hit on multiple fronts. One group is criticizing him on organized-labor issues, while two are hammering him on energy.
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Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is blasting Lunsford on veterans issues.
But some say those arguments might seem like static to voters, who in recent weeks have been focused on the floundering economy.
"Yes, this is on the back burner," acknowledged Bill Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass Co. and member of the Kentucky steering committee for the Employee Freedom Action Committee. That group has aired commercials and, last week, mailed out a flier slamming Lunsford for supporting union leaders, whom the group says want to do away with secret balloting in union elections.
"But it's very much on the front burner for business leaders," Stone added. "Electing Mitch McConnell becomes vitally important for all of America because of this thing."
Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said in an interview Tuesday that moving the campaign discourse away from the economy won't help McConnell, who has seen his poll numbers dip as financial problems have roiled Wall Street and Washington.
"Staying away from the subject hurts McConnell; it doesn't help him," Voss said. "He can't run an ad about a rather narrow question that isn't even a matter of governance directly and expect that all of a sudden these people who were starting to go against him for economic reasons are going to give up their anxiety about the economy. That's their pocketbooks."
The one outside organization that has come into Kentucky recently on Lunsford's behalf has picked up on the financial turmoil.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee started airing ads in Louisville on Tuesday, and the rest of the state Wednesday.
"Wall Street and the big banks gave Mitch McConnell $4.4 million, and he fought for less regulation of Wall Street," the ad's announcer says.
McConnell's campaign fired back Wednesday, saying "Wall Street money helped pay for this ad."
Citing the same parameters the DSCC ad did for bank and investment firm donations, the campaign pointed to $45 million the Democratic group received from those interests in the 2006 and '08 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Union issue continues
Finding the funding sources for a couple of the groups going after Lunsford is more difficult.
Neither Employee Freedom, which runs union-related ads, nor the American Energy Alliance, which started airing radio spots about Lunsford, have filed tax reports with the IRS.
Tim Miller, spokesman for Employee Freedom, declined to say who has donated to the group, which is a 501 (c) 4 non-profit.
"It's a coalition of businesses and individuals, including some union members," he said.
The group's major focus has been opposing a union-related bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate, partially because of McConnell's opposition. The measure would give workers the option of signing a petition — rather than voting by secret ballot — to decide whether to unionize.
Employee Freedom's latest mailer clearly targets women, saying "Big labor bosses have a history of corruption and sexual discrimination, and Bruce Lunsford supports their radical agenda."
The mailer cites 14,000 sexual-harassment complaints against unions or their leaders among more than 150,000 total complaints received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the last 11 years.
But Stone said the EEOC complaints are "irrelevant to this issue" of whether prospective union members should be able to vote with secret ballots. "I didn't say I had to agree with the mailer," he said.
Gas-tax claim returns
On the energy front, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has aired commercials for two months that criticize Lunsford's energy plan.
Another new radio spot from a group called American Energy Alliance picks up one of McConnell's old attacks slamming Lunsford for supporting a state gas tax increase 28 years ago.
But it erroneously refers to Lunsford as "a lobbyist and Frankfort politician (who) fought to hike the gas tax." Lunsford, a businessman, has never served as a paid lobbyist or been elected to office.
At the time, he was a legislative liaison for former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. That administration pushed a bill through the General Assembly that created an automatic increase in the gas tax if the wholesale price of gasoline skyrockets.
The American Energy Alliance's Web site says the organization is a partner of Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is founded by Robert L. Bradley Jr., according to IRS documents. Bradley contributed $2,300 to McConnell's campaign June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission.
A spokesman for the institute didn't return a call Wednesday.