Sam Youngman

Political Paddock: Federal races, issues set for starring roles in Kentucky General Assembly

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and President Barack Obama
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and President Barack Obama

Do not adjust your television.

The 60-workday legislative session that begins this week in Frankfort will still deal with state issues, but Kentuckians can be forgiven if at times they think the statehouse is doing its best impression of Washington as federal issues and politics play major roles in the upcoming session.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election efforts will cast a shadow over almost everything in Frankfort as Democrats push issues that either hurt McConnell, help likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, or both. Meanwhile, Republicans will invoke the name of President Barack Obama at almost every turn.

The length and depth of the Senate race's shadow started to come into focus Friday when Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo nonchalantly announced during a meeting with reporters that House Bill 1 would mirror federal legislation aimed at raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over a three-year period.

Stumbo joked Friday that he didn't want to speculate on how the issue dovetailed with the Senate race, where Grimes and national Democrats hope to make raising the minimum wage a central agenda item in 2014. On Monday, Stumbo told the Herald-Leader he had "never ever" discussed the issue with Grimes.

Republicans have so far just rolled their eyes at Stumbo's decision to push the matter in Frankfort. Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Monday that the speaker is "taking a page from the Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda in a state that has overwhelmingly rejected those policies in multiple elections."

Allison Moore, McConnell's press secretary, said that while Grimes has "proven that she is determined to blindly follow her liberal donor allies, it is interesting to now see Kentucky liberals falling in line to take marching orders from Harry Reid and Barack Obama."

"Sadly, when you believe the government is the solution to America's economic problems, as Alison Lundergan Grimes, Greg Stumbo and Barack Obama do, then you're forced to talk about things like minimum wage instead of the maximum potential for Kentucky families," Moore said.

But a wage hike polls well across party lines in Kentucky, and Stumbo is all but drooling at what he says is a role-reversal he and Democrats are looking forward to after a 2012 in which they were threatened at every point by Obama's spot at the top of their ticket.

Defending Obama's policies was a nightmare for Democrats because of his enduring unpopularity in the state, but Stumbo said McConnell "is a pretty close second."

"You see the Republicans in the House and Senate, they're just mimicking ... whatever Mitch McConnell says," Stumbo said. "They're going to face the same political position we did. They're going to have to run with McConnell or against him."

Stumbo is confident that having to defend McConnell will cost Republicans at least seven House seats in a year when Republicans believe they can win control of the lower chamber for the first time since the 1920s. (Democrats hold a 54-46 majority.)

Because of that hope, Democrats are likely not finished being painted with the Obama brush, as Thayer noted in a conversation Monday.

The cost and problems associated with Kentucky's expansion of Medicaid eligibility will mean that Obama's health-care law will be "an overlay on this entire session and will continue to be a drag on Democrats this November," Thayer said.

With a budget crunch threatening education funding and teacher layoffs apparently possible, Thayer warned that neither Stumbo nor Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear should look to the legislature for help with the cost of expanding Medicaid.

"I hope [Beshear] doesn't ask us to fund any portion of it with General Fund dollars," Thayer said.

While McConnell vs. Grimes plays out between the Republican Senate and the Democratic House, Kentucky's other U.S. Senator figures to play a role in the legislative session as well.

Sen. Rand Paul seems to be heavily involved in an effort to restore voting rights for non-violent felons, with plans to testify in relevant committee hearings in late January or February.

When asked Friday if Paul's full-throated support of a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights would help the legislation clear the Senate, where it has died for years, Stumbo smiled.

"He may get it half way out of the legislature, but I doubt it will make the governor's desk," Stumbo said.

So it's still Frankfort. It'll just look like Washington at times.

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