FRANKFORT — The first Kentucky Democrat stepped forward Monday to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who is widely thought to be the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the nation.
Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo plans to run again for the U.S. Senate, a move that effectively will prevent him from being Gov. Steve Beshear's running mate in a possible 2011 re-election bid for the Democratic governor.
Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning by 1.4 percentage points in 2004, said in a news release Monday that he intends to file his Democratic candidacy papers later this week for the Senate.
Meanwhile, two other statewide Democratic officials — Auditor Crit Luallen and Attorney General Jack Conway — said they continue to consider a run for Bunning's seat.
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"I suspect that Daniel Mongiardo cannot avoid a contested primary" election in May 2010, Conway said, noting that Luallen and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler are potential candidates.
Chandler, D-Versailles, declined to comment Monday when asked whether he is interested in running for Bunning's seat.
Bunning, a senator since 1998, welcomed the news of Mongiardo's entry into the race.
"I am gearing up and I look forward to the challenge of taking on whoever comes out of the Democrat primary in May of 2010," he said in a statement.
Speculation continues that Bunning might not seek re-election, but he has repeatedly said he wants another six-year term. He is expected to comment on the race Tuesday in a telephone conference with reporters.
Meanwhile, "all the people who matter" in Washington, D.C., are sending the same signal to Bunning, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report: "They're encouraging him to pull back."
"They'd be more than happy if he decided not to seek another term, but they don't want to push him because when you push Jim Bunning, he pushes back," Rothenberg said.
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Greyson has been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate if Bunning declines to run again, as has U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron.
Conway, during a news conference in his Capitol office Monday, said he remains "very interested" in the race and is "still strongly considering running for the U.S. Senate in 2010."
"I'm going to make my decision on my own time line and without regard for what anyone else is doing," he said.
Conway said he also has to consider what is best for his wife, Elizabeth, who is expecting their first child in early August.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will most likely attempt to broker a deal between state Democrats in coming days to avoid a bitter primary race, Rothenberg said.
Still, a hard-fought primary might benefit the ultimate Democratic candidate, said Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley.
"Conway, in particular, might benefit from a primary because of name recognition," Lasley said.
Although Mongiardo is more widely known, doubts about his political ability remain, Lasley said.
After nearly defeating Bunning in 2004, "you would have thought that he would have moved to a first-tier candidate and you never really saw that," he said. "I think that's why you see doubt in the party."
Conway said he expects that Beshear will not make an endorsement in a party primary.
Beshear said he is too busy focusing on a $456 million projected shortfall in the state budget to comment on future elections.
He did acknowledge that Mongiardo's decision to run for the Senate means he will need a new running mate if he decides to seek re-election in 2011.
State campaign finance laws require candidates to name their running mates before they can raise campaign funds. If Beshear seeks re-election, he would not want to wait until after the 2010 U.S. Senate race to start raising money.
Beshear said he has not talked to anyone about being his running mate in a possible bid for re-election.
In the meantime, Mongiardo plans to stay on as lieutenant governor until the 2010 race is decided, Mongiardo spokesman Kim Geveden said.
Luallen, in a statement, said she will "continue to consider the race and will make a final decision soon."
She said Mongiardo's announcement will not affect her decision. "What's important is that we have a senator who can effectively address our critical needs here in Kentucky."
Beshear praised Mongiardo in a statement but stopped short of endorsing him.
"I understand his desire to be part of the national debate on how best to create a more affordable and accessible health care system for all Americans," Beshear said.
Mongiardo, who was a state senator from Hazard when he challenged Bunning in 2004, still has a sizable debt from that race.
His last campaign finance report for the 2004 race, filed Oct. 14, 2008, with the Federal Election Commission, showed a debt of $606,993.77.
Of that, $534,483.01 is owed to Mongiardo for $713,800 in loans he made to his campaign.
Other debts outstanding from his 2004 campaign include $23,184.15 to New South Strategies in Lexington for voter data, $366.90 to Office Depot in Frankfort for office supplies and $70 to Liberty Telephone in Frankfort.
Mongiardo, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, was performing surgery Monday and was not available for comment, Geveden said.
Mongiardo will give media interviews on Thursday, Geveden said. He is scheduled to tour some coalfields Tuesday and Wednesday with state Energy Secretary Len Peters.
Mongiardo, in a statement, said he will "launch a vigorous campaign" to replace Bunning after the current legislative session ends in March.
Mongiardo said he would concentrate on health care and the economy if elected.
He accused Bunning of being "absent at this critical time," a reference to news reports that Bunning missed several key votes in Washington earlier this month while at an undisclosed location with his family.
As of last week, Bunning's re-election campaign had only $149,991 on hand. He is the only incumbent senator whose race is rated a toss-up by Rothenberg.
"He hasn't taken the steps to strengthen his hand that you would expect," Rothenberg said.