U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has continued to shatter all Kentucky fund-raising records with an eye-popping bounty of $17.8 million in total donations, forcing Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford to dig deep into his vast personal fortune.
The tightening race is by far the most expensive political campaign in Kentucky history and is now among the most closely watched nationally, considering McConnell is the Senate Republican leader.
So far, McConnell's campaign has spent $12.6 million — more than twice the $5.8 million the Lunsford camp has shelled out.
Of the nearly $7.1 million that Lunsford has raised, $5.5 million has been from his personal bank accounts, allowing him to keep pace with McConnell on the television airwaves in recent weeks.
With 19 days left before Election Day, the critical number for the campaigns going forward is cash on hand, said Kim Geveden, a Democratic campaign consultant.
Lunsford had $1.24 million as of Sept. 30, according to his campaign finance report filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission.
McConnell reported starting October with more than $5.7 million that he could tap.
"To put that in some kind of context, a heavy TV buy in all markets including Cincinnati (which covers Northern Kentucky) probably runs you in the neighborhood of $500,000 per week," said Geveden, who helped run the campaign of Lunsford's primary opponent, Greg Fischer. "That still gives McConnell $600,000 more each week to use for radio, direct mail and telephone calls."
In a normal year, that type of overwhelming force often buries a challenger.
McConnell was successful in doing that in 2002, when he cruised to victory over Democrat Lois Combs Weinberg by raising nearly $6 million to her $2.2 million. Similarly, his $4.4 million in 1996 more than doubled the $1.7 million collected by Steve Beshear, now the Democratic governor.
But Lunsford doesn't need to outspend McConnell to win, Geveden said.
"We're in a different political environment today with the economic crisis ... The environment for Republicans is probably about as bad as it's been since Watergate," he said. "It's a tsunami. And Lunsford, I think, will invest what it takes to be up on that surfboard to catch that wave."
Scott Douglas, a Republican lobbyist and McConnell supporter, said it's not just the money but how it's spent. That, he said, remains McConnell's strength.
"What he's been so effective at doing is just killing his opponents by death of 1,000 cuts," Douglas said. "And we've seen Bruce Lunsford has proven to be a ripe target because of his business background."
McConnell has spent several hundred thousand over the last month airing commercials that focus on Valor Healthcare, a company that runs clinics for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Texas and Arkansas. Lunsford is a member of its board of directors and served temporarily as its chief executive officer.
In the commercials, veterans complain about the care offered in the clinics. The ads also attempt to tie Lunsford to the current financial crisis by claiming he "got rich the Wall Street way."
Lunsford, in addition to responding to those ads, has been spending money hitting McConnell on the economy. His most recent commercial, which started airing Wednesday, calls for middle-class tax cuts while claiming McConnell "has been giving tax breaks to big oil companies and the wealthiest Americans."
Lunsford is one of those "wealthiest Americans." A former health care company owner, he now invests in start-up companies, and owns thoroughbred racehorses and a movie production company.
He is worth at least $50 million according to his personal finance disclosure forms. Last weekend, McConnell estimated Lunsford's fortune at up to $100 million.
"He's probably worth a lit tle less than he was at the beginning of the campaign," McCon nell said. "I think he'll spend whatever he wants to spend."
Lunsford's campaign, however, won't say how much. "We don't discuss that strategy," said spokesman Cary Stemle.
In failed bids for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2003 and 2007, Lunsford spent a combined $14 million of his own money.
Being a wealthy candidate sometimes hurts fund-raising, as donors look to give money to less self-sufficient candidates. Since July, Lunsford has kicked in $2.4 million himself while receiving less than $800,000 from individuals.
"Compared to other U.S. Senate candidates, $800,000 is not a lot," Geveden said.
But he said Lunsford's national and Kentucky fund-raising might have picked up in the last three weeks as polls have consistently shown McConnell's lead sink from double digits to, in some cases, a statistical tie.
McConnell is long past the record for the most prolific fund-raiser in Kentucky history. Beshear raised a total of $9.5 million in his primary and general election wins for governor last year. And before that, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning's $6.7 million spent in the 2004 race was the most for a federal candidate.
Between July and Sept. 30, McConnell raised $2.6 million and shelled out $6 million.
But the senator has continued to send out requests to donors that underscore how difficult the environment is for Republicans and how Democrats will be gunning to take out the GOP leader.