In a rare example of bipartisan hay-making in the heat of an election, Democratic and Republican challengers launched commercials Tuesday hammering their respective opponent's support for last week's $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill.
One ad, from Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford, claims the nation "got into this mess" that led to the historic bailout because of "career politicians like Mitch McConnell." McConnell, the Republican Senate leader from Louisville, is seeking his fifth term in Washington.
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The other ad came from former Republican U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who is trying to win back the 3rd Congressional District seat in Louisville from Democratic freshman U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth. Yarmuth voted against an early draft of the bailout bill before supporting the version that passed Friday.
"You're probably going to have some really confused voters in the Louisville area," said Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, in pointing out the novelty of having challengers of different parties seize on the same issue to criticize their opponents.
The new ads underscore the extent to which voter concerns about the economy have remade the campaign landscape in recent weeks, putting increased pressure on incumbents such as McConnell and Yarmuth to quell voters' fears about their financial future.
McConnell, particularly, has seen his poll numbers plummet since mid-September. That was around the time U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson first predicted economic disaster if Congress didn't intervene by buying up toxic securities that had infected major U.S. investment firms and threatened to bring the international credit market to a grinding halt.
"What this new ad should make clear, if the polls hadn't already, is that McConnell has to engage on the economy," Voss said. "He may be the incumbent and he may have gone into this race with it being his race to lose, but the financial bailout takes away that luxury."
Senate race ad
Lunsford's ad, his first of the race that homes in on the economy, cites McConnell's vote in 1999 for legislation that rolled back government regulation of Wall Street banking and investment firms. It also highlights the amount of campaign contributions McConnell has received from the financial sector, as tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.
"McConnell took more than $4 million from the Wall Street financial industry, got rid of the government regulations they didn't like and let the billionaires and CEOs stuff their pockets with cash," the ad's announcer says. "Now Wall Street is in trouble and taxpayers are getting the bill."
Another ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that's airing in Louisville reinforces those same points using an old-time Wild West theme. At one point, the announcer says "McConnell opened the gate and Wall Street went wild."
McConnell's campaign manager, Justin Brasell, issued a statement attempting to turn the tables on Lunsford, who is a millionaire Louisville businessman.
"Bruce can't even offer an opinion about how we should work to help Kentucky's families navigate these difficult times," Brasell's statement said. "Bruce is no leader. Rather, he is the poster child for the greed and excess that led to the mess we are in."
Lunsford's personal financial-disclosure forms show he has millions of dollars worth of investments. But the documents show no evidence that he participated in trading of mortgage-backed securities, which are at the heart of Wall Street's problems.
It's still the economy
Lunsford said Tuesday that he expects the economy to be the primary issue on voters' minds when they vote Nov. 4.
But he wouldn't say how his campaign will continue to tap into the issue. "We don't talk about strategy," he said.
Voss said that approach is smart considering the pressure is on McConnell, whose party has controlled the White House for the last eight years and Congress for six of the last eight.
That's why he said McConnell — who so far has addressed the need for the bailout legislation only through an e-mail to supporters and Senate floor speeches — should weigh in quickly on the subject with his own commercial.
"I think it would be irresponsible in a time of great anxiety to be a public leader and not address the thing that's on peoples' minds," he said. "What people are worried about is this spilling over into another depression. And that's what you have to address."
Brasell wouldn't say how McConnell plans to deal with the economy in forthcoming ads.
The new ad in Louisville's congressional race also centers on the bailout bill, which Yarmuth ultimately supported.
"Job losses. An economy in meltdown. A nation already $10 trillion in debt," the ad's announcer says. "Now John Yarmuth votes to bail out Wall Street. But for Yarmuth, $700 billion for Wall Street CEOs is just the start."
It goes on to refer to a recent WHAS-840 AM radio interview in which Yarmuth said there were "50 other" government programs that needed more funding.
"Maybe that's why Yarmuth supports higher taxes on Louis ville families and small businesses," the ad says, citing two votes unrelated to the bailout.
"He hasn't connected the two statements. But we've put those out there for the voters to decide," said Larry Hartog, Northup's campaign manager.
Yarmuth's campaign spokesman, Christopher Hartman, dismissed the commercial, saying "it's unfortunate that campaign politics are being injected into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
He then alluded to the 1999 deregulation bill — which was passed by a Republican-led Congress while Northup was in office and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
"The people of Louisville understand that the economy is on the brink of a meltdown because of years of deregulation, corporate greed and the lack of oversight," he said.
Herald-Leader staff writer Jack Brammer contributed to this report.