FRANKFORT — People from Kentucky's mountain region were among the first to put money on Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the race for U.S. Senate.
Mongiardo said he is pleased that nearly 17 percent of the contributions in his first quarter financial report to the Federal Election Commission came from his neighbors in largely rural Perry County.
The Mongiardo campaign contends that the coalfield contributions are a sign that he is "well regarded, well respected and well liked by those who know him best." His Democratic opposition, however, says the financial backing shows that Mongiardo is "a regional candidate" who lacks statewide appeal.
"He's a young man who went to medical school and made it as a doctor," said Dea Riley, an independent political consultant in Frankfort. "I think he represents a lot of pride for the people and the region. They have continuously supported him. He has a very loyal following throughout eastern Kentucky."
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A physician at Hazard Appalachian Regional Hospital, Mongiardo reported contributions from 700 people in 90 counties in his first campaign-finance report, pulling in far more cash than the incumbent, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, in the first quarter. Two other Eastern Kentucky counties — Pike and Powell — were among the 10 that contributed most to Mongiardo's campaign.
"Obviously, support from home is very important," Mongiardo said. "Those are the people who know me best."
Mongiardo, one of two Democratic candidates vying for Bunning's job, raised $429,552 before March 31. Of that, $72,855 came from Perry County.
Mongiardo will face Attorney General Jack Conway in next year's Democratic primary. Conway entered the race last month and hasn't yet filed a finance report with the Federal Election Commission.
Conway political adviser Mark Riddle said he expects Conway's second-quarter report to reflect contributions from across the state.
Riddle suggested that the Mongiardo campaign is making too much ado of the local contributions.
"It's not a surprise that Mongiardo would receive some support in his hometown," he said.
Riddle cited endorsements from political leaders across the state — including U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, state Auditor Crit Luallen and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson — as indications of widespread support for Conway's candidacy.
"We're very encouraged by the level of support shown so far to the attorney general," Riddle said. "We're going to show support all across Kentucky and not just be a regional candidate like Dr. Mongiardo."
Bunning reported raising a modest $27,357 from Jan. 1 to March 31. Since being elected to a second term in 2004, Bunning has raised $524,000 but has spent more than $470,000. Bunning has said he expects a successful race to cost $7 million to $10 million.
Mongiardo narrowly lost to Bunning in the 2004 race, 51 percent to 49 percent. Some 27,000 votes separated the two.
Going into a possible rematch, Mongiardo has the endorsement of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Mongiardo, a pro-coal Democrat, also received financial contributions from a handful of Appalachian mine operators, including $2,400 from Ben Hatfield of Charleston, W.Va., president of International Coal Group, the company that owns the now-closed Sago Mine in West Virginia where 12 men were killed in an explosion in 2006.
Rank-and-file coal miners also contributed to Mongiardo, who has rankled some environmentalists with his defense of mountaintop-removal coal mining.
"The reality is, I am for improving the economy of the state of Kentucky, and to do that we need to figure out new ways of burning coal cleanly, and we need to figure out better ways of converting coal to liquids to decrease our dependence on foreign oil," he said. "The economy of the entire state is impacted by coal, and I think we need to modernize coal and make sure we have technology for ultra-clean-burning coal."
Mongiardo, who has made health care, not coal, the centerpiece of his campaign, said he feels honored by the financial support from across rural Kentucky.
"We're receiving contributions from a wide variety of folks — from high-tech industry, coal, environmentalists," he said. "People who can donate $5 and $10 and $20. People who actually have to work for a living. People who come in and have to clean up before sitting down at the dinner table. Those are the people I'm fighting for, because that's where I grew up. That's where I live."
Kentucky hasn't had a senator from the state's Appalachian region since the late John Sherman Cooper, a Republican from Somerset.
"I think Eastern Kentuckians want to see someone in Washington from the Appalachian region," Riley said. "Dan Mongiardo is their best hope."