PRINCETON — Throughout the weekend's political events in Western Kentucky, Democrats routinely gave the loudest cheers for Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell – for beating him, to be precise.
Sure, they clapped politely for McConnell's Democratic challenger, Bruce Lunsford, when he was introduced at Democratic Rep. Mike Cherry's back-yard rally in Princeton, for instance. But it was strong calls for the ousting of McConnell made by other Democratic officials that brought cheers and whoops.
Later, at the Fancy Farm picnic, it was the same story, with anti-McConnell props, signs and cheers such as, ”Send him home.“
”I think the overriding unifying force for Kentucky Democrats across the state is a desire to replace Mitch McConnell with someone who can relate better to the majority of Kentuckians,“ said Democratic state Auditor Crit Luallen. ”I think that is the driving force, but it opens a great opportunity for Bruce Lunsford.“
Seizing that opportunity might be Lunsford's most difficult task while McConnell is throwing everything he can at him, such as ads blaming Lunsford for high gas prices because he helped push for a state gasoline tax increase 28 years ago that has inflated the per-gallon cost by less than a nickel since 2004.
So far, that's been the thrust of what most voters have heard from the two U.S. Senate candidates.
Most political observers and voters say the McConnell-Lunsford battle will be an expensive, strategically choreographed slugfest, that, so far, has been devoid of passion or inspiration or much of anything that can excite voters who aren't political party zealots.
One Democratic official described the race as ”soulless.“
But that type of an approach is how McConnell has won his last four Senate races. He is known for seizing on his opponents' weaknesses, then clinically dissecting his challenger with relentless ads and talking points that he sticks to with the discipline of a monk.
Lunsford, meanwhile, is a largely unknown commodity even after spending $15 million in two previous unsuccessful races for governor. Many voters, even Democrats, say they know little about what he stands for – but they know he's not McConnell.
Shane Fortner, 34, a Caldwell County farmer and businessman, said he's one of many Western Kentucky Democrats who have voted for McConnell in the past but would be open to supporting Lunsford if he knows more about Lunsford's goals and key issues.
”I would say I'm undecided right now,“ Fortner said, adding that the lack of buzz and excitement in his area has hindered his decision-making process. ”There doesn't seem to be a lot of what I would call grass roots and local efforts. It seems to be limited to a TV campaign at this point.“
McConnell continues to stick to his plan. He dismissed questions about whether the gas price issue that he has been hammering on in the Senate and in campaign ads is a way to change the subject from other issues, such as the economy or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
”I would not describe the No. 1 issue in the country as a diversion,“ McConnell said Saturday. ”This is what the American people are thinking about and talking about and what they expect us to do something about.“
Lunsford, meanwhile, insisted that his campaign can tap into voters' emotions. But the even the specific emotion he cited was aimed at McConnell, not something he sought to inspire.
”I think there is a passion this time. And it's called anger. There's a lot of anger in the country,“ Lunsford said.
Whether that can be enough of a foundation for an upset remains to be seen, especially while McConnell forces Lunsford to play defense.
Luallen, who strongly considered challenging McConnell as recently as last fall, said that was one of her biggest concerns when thinking about the race: ”that it would degenerate into a name-calling contest.“
”It's a really important question to answer. Do you have enough resources to not only answer attacks but get your message out?“ she said. ”Bruce Lunsford is a candidate who has to continue to build his own identity with the voters.“