After weeks of a campaign dominated by ads about oil drilling and gas prices, Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford is now rummaging through Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's 24-year record of quotes and votes.
"The McCon job — 24 years of Mitch McConnell saying anything to get elected," the announcer says in Lunsford's latest 30-second ad that began airing Thursday night.
The spot outlines pledges McConnell made during his campaigns about opposing tax increases, helping veterans, preserving Medicare and making education more affordable. The commercial then attempts to paint McConnell as a flip-flopper by alleging the four-term senator violated those pledges with certain votes.
It's an age-old approach against an established incumbent, especially senators who are often taking scores of procedural votes and asked to approve or turn down many amendments on bills. And that tactic is unlikely to sway many voters or deal a major blow to McConnell, said D. Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, who specializes in elections and voter behavior.
"That really only works when you have a candidate who hasn't done an effective job in explaining what he or she stands for," Voss said. "People accept that argument because it sort of reinforces what they had suspected all along."
With four six-year terms under his belt, it's certain that McConnell would have made some votes Lunsford could try to pick on, Voss said. But voters need to know the context of those votes.
"Someone with a long legislative career will have lots of votes that sound sinister but when you start getting into the details, it just gets confusing," Voss said.
The claim in Lunsford's ad about McConnell's position on taxes is one example. McConnell, indeed, said he would steer clear of approving tax increases, according to Herald-Leader articles from the 1984 Senate campaign. But the commercial's allegation that McConnell "then voted for tax increases," is difficult to back up.
The campaign cited a vote from Nov. 7., 1990, in which McConnell voted in favor of a proposed amendment that expressed what is called the "sense of the Senate" — a non-binding expression of preference. In this case, this legislative opinion said the senators assigned to craft the budget should, among other things, consider "increasing the tax rate of incomes above $200,000" to offset capital gains and gasoline tax cuts.
McConnell's campaign, in a written rebuttal to Lunsford's ad, notes that the senator opposed several high-profile suggested tax increases pushed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993.
On the issue of providing funding for veterans, Lunsford's commercial claims McConnell "voted against veterans' health care." It cites six votes McConnell made between 1991 and 1996.
On two of those votes, McConnell sided with the majority of senators to shelve amendments that contained suggestions for shifting some money around in the budget to various programs, including veterans.
The other four votes were against amendments. And again, McConnell was in the majority who voted to turn them down.
Ken Hart, adjutant for the Kentucky American Legion, said McConnell "has been supportive of veterans and our issues."
The only point of disagreement the American Legion has had with McConnell is over his stance against a constitutional amendment that would ban burning the American flag. And the ad claims McConnell pledged not to cut Medicare and then voted to do so in the Balanced Budget Act. But it doesn't explain that the bill cut Medicare's growth rate, not the base amount of funding. Lunsford's ad requires too much investigation for voters to determine the accuracy of the claims, Voss said.
"It takes journalists hours of research to figure out whether the claims have any merit, so you can imagine how hard it is for voters," he said.
Voss said Lunsford would be better off linking McConnell to the high-spending and unpopular Congress, which Republicans controlled up until 2006.
"That is easy — we have had a Republican Congress and they have been spending like drunken sailors," he said. "I'd be combing through Mitch McConnell's record looking for things that betray conservative principles of fiscal restraint."