Fighting against a national Democratic tide, U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell survived what he called an "exhausting" re-election race and emerged as the nation's most powerful Republican.
McConnell, who led in most polls by slim margins down the stretch, benefited from a strong showing by GOP presidential candidate John McCain in Kentucky.
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In his campaign against Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, McConnell campaigned heavily on the sway he holds as Senate Republican leader.
"We were ready for a tough one and it was. In the end, Bruce earned a lot of votes, and he earned my respect," McConnell said. "Campaigns like this force you to work harder, and they remind you what a privilege it is to serve."
As he returns to Washington for a fifth term, he's a lock to remain Senate Republican leader. That makes him "the most important Republican in the United States Congress," state Senate President David Williams said as he introduced McConnell Tuesday night.
But he will have to work with a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and fewer Republican senators. He had been in command of 49. But Republicans Tuesday lost at least half a dozen seats.
McConnell didn't take questions after his victory speech in Louisville, and he made only a vague reference to his legislative agenda.
"Looking ahead, our nation faces many serious challenges. I'm ready for them," he said. "I want Kentuckians to know that after tonight, I leave here energized and recommitted to putting our state and our nation on the road to clean energy independence, a strong economy, lower spending and safeguarding our homeland."
Lunsford, speaking to a subdued crowd of Democrats at the nearby Louisville Marriott Downtown, urged Mc Con nell "to work hand-in-hand with the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate and President Obama."
"If Sen. McConnell is willing — and I believe he will be — to move the Republican Party in that direction, then I know Kentuckians will be behind him 100 percent because those are Kentucky values," he said after quelling boos at his first mention of McConnell. "The next six years must not be like the last six."
The race will rank as Kentucky's most expensive campaign in history and one of its most contentious. By October, McConnell had collected $17.8 million and Lunsford had amassed $7.1 million, with $5.5 million from his own fortune. All told, the candidates and various outside groups for both sides spent at least $25 million on commercials.
Lunsford tried several messages to erode McConnell's support and standing, including linking him to President Bush, whose popularity is at a low, and hit McConnell for leading support of the $700 billion financial system bailout.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also weighed in with several weeks' worth of commercials painting McConnell as beholden to special interests, specifically Wall Street.
It wasn't enough, even though Lunsford neared the record of total votes for a Kentucky Democrat, 850,855. He won several key areas — including Louisville, Lexington and the Eastern Kentucky Democratic strongholds of Pike and Floyd counties — but not by the margins that Democrat Daniel Mongiardo received in those counties in 2004, when he narrowly lost to GOP U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning.
Mongiardo had built up a 95,600-vote lead in those four areas before Bunning overtook him in Northern and Western Kentucky. Lunsford beat McConnell in those same areas by just 58,300 votes.
McConnell repeatedly hit Lunsford with pointed commercials, targeting Lunsford's business record and indirectly conjuring up the ghosts of Lunsford's past failed bids for governor in 2003 and 2007.
Many of those ads featured veterans or their family members complaining about care at Valor Healthcare clinics in Arkansas and Texas. Lunsford sits on Valor's board and temporarily served as CEO. In the 2003 primary for governor, care of elderly patients at Lunsford's nursing home company was a flash-point issue.
It's the clout
But McConnell's most powerful argument was his clout as a four-term senator and his status as only the second party leader in the Senate in Kentucky's history.
McConnell repeatedly cited in speeches and ads the amounts of federal funding he secured for universities, state programs and county offices.
Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, a Democrat, said he backed McConnell because the senator secured for the department $233,000 in funds for communications and computer technology.
"You can't overlook the seniority that Sen. McConnell's got," he said last week at a McConnell event in Glasgow.
Lunsford, meanwhile, fell just short of the state's biggest political upset and might have been hurt by his past runs.
Forty-five percent of likely voters surveyed by the Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky poll last month said they had an unfavorable view of Lunsford.
"Lunsford came into this race with some serious flaws, and he still has those flaws," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington. But Lunsford and his thick wallet succeeded in one key front.
"What (Democrats) wanted to do was pin McConnell down and make him spend every dime that he had," Cook said.
Former Democratic Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. said that accomplishment has earned Lunsford the respect of national and state Democrats and makes him a top choice as the party's candidate for the 2010 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bunning. Lunsford wouldn't rule out another campaign.
Still, with national forces seemingly set to work against McConnell, some Democrats said the party missed an opportunity by not convincing U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, to make the race.
"Had Chandler run, I think he would have been elected," said political consultant Danny Briscoe. "He's better known, better liked and would have been the strongest candidate."
Chandler, who was re-elected to his third full term in Congress Tuesday, said he doesn't lament his decision.
"There's no regret about that," he said after his only campaign stop for Lunsford last month. "Listen, there are a lot of races that you can run for and people need to be happy with what they're doing."