FRANKFORT — Attorney General Jack Conway jumped into the race for U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning's seat Thursday, setting up a potentially costly Democratic duel between two of the party's up-and-coming members.
Conway made his announcement via a 7-minute video that was later posted on his campaign Web site. He said he will formally announce his Senate aspirations Monday in Louisville.
"Now, my friends, is the time to take back Wendell Ford's seat and return it to the people for whom he fought," Conway said in the video, referring to the Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate from 1974 to 1999.
Conway, 39, will face fellow Democrat Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo in the 2010 primary. Gov. Steve Beshear has already endorsed Mongiardo, but Conway is aligned with State Auditor Crit Luallen and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles.
Conway's support among party members will be tested during Monday's event, which could prove a "who's who" among Democrats.
"It is going to be interesting to see who will be there," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "It could demonstrate some real depth and reach in his support among the party. Chandler and Luallen taking sides in the primary and taking sides against the governor says a lot."
As of now, the winner would face Bunning, R-Southgate, who has been labeled one of the most vulnerable members of Congress.
Conway, a Louisville lawyer and first-term Kentucky attorney general, has been mulling entering the 2010 race for months. Conway, Luallen and Chandler were all possible contenders to take on Mongiardo.
Conway on Thursday said it was his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, who ultimately pushed him to enter the race. Conway said he was concerned that he couldn't be a father, the attorney general and a Senate candidate at the same time, but his wife convinced him otherwise.
"We are in a really unique time," Conway said. "There are so many issues that are facing our state and our country right now."
In the video, Conway talks about his accomplishments since becoming attorney general in November 2007 and pledges to work in Washington to break up the large financial institutions that have been bailed out by the federal government.
In response to Conway's announcement, Mongiardo's camp touted the Hazard doctor and former state senator's experience compared to Conway, who has been in office for a little more than a year.
"This primary gives Kentucky families a clear choice," said Kim Geveden, a spokesman for Mongiardo. "He has an actual record of fighting for better health care for Kentucky families and for better jobs."
A recent poll showed Conway and Mongiardo would fare about the same in a race against Bunning.
The Public Policy poll showed Conway beating Bunning 42 percent to 33 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Mongiardo topped Bunning 43 percent to 36 percent, with 21 percent undecided. Conway and Mongiardo also had similar approval ratings with Conway at 40 percent and Mongiardo at 42 percent, according to the poll of 610 voters over two days in April.
Meanwhile, the same poll showed that Bunning's approval rating is in the cellar — at 28 percent.
The Hall of Fame pitcher has publicly feuded with his party in recent months and has made several public gaffes.
Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning in 2004, said earlier this week that he has amassed more than $420,000 in campaign cash.
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said Mongiardo's early fund-raising lead likely won't affect Conway's ability to raise cash.
"I don't think he has built an insurmountable lead," Lasley said.
As a Jefferson County native, Conway will be able to tap the checkbooks of some of the state's wealthiest residents, Lasley said. But geography might also work against Conway, since folks in rural counties may have misgivings about electing a second senator from the state's most populous county. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell also calls Louisville home.
But Conway said Thursday that the urban versus rural argument was outdated and that people today don't care as much about where a candidate is from as they did 50 years ago.
Conway may also be able to drum up more cash than Mongiardo from outside the commonwealth, Lasley said.
"I think if the national Democrats were excited about Mongiardo, Conway wouldn't be in the race," he said.
Conway is a graduate of Duke University and George Washington University law school. He worked for several years in Gov. Paul Patton's administration in the 1990s and later worked in private practice before voters elected him as attorney general. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2002, losing to Republican Anne Northup.
Conway said he would officially kick off his campaign at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. He promised that some "surprise guests" will attend. Luallen and Chandler both said Thursday that they plan to attend.
Conway worked for Luallen for six years during the Patton administration. Luallen praised Conway's "remarkable intellect" and said he was one of the "bright stars" of his generation.
Luallen said rumors that Beshear has asked her to be his running mate for a possible 2011 re-election run — which would have kept her from running for the U.S. Senate — are not true.
"Governor Beshear and I have never discussed that," Luallen said. "I made this decision because it was the right decision for me at this time."
In a written statement, Chandler declined to comment on Conway's announcement until Monday.
Bunning also declined to comment Thursday about Conway's announcement.
Now that the Democratic field is presumably set, all eyes are on possible contenders for the Republican nomination.
State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has not ruled out a challenge to Bunning. Williams said Thursday that he is watching the race closely.
"I like Jim Bunning, and I have supported Jim Bunning in the past," Williams said. But Williams said he thinks that Senate seat should stay with the Republicans and he still isn't convinced that Bunning can win.
Secretary of State Trey Grayson has also frequently been mentioned as a possible candidate, but Grayson said again on Thursday that he would not consider running unless Bunning drops out.
Still, a high-profile Democratic primary battle could bode well for Bunning.
"An expensive primary could give him some space to raise more money," Duffy said. "The DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) doesn't like primaries, but they're willing to sit back and see who's the strongest candidate."