Bailout helps Bunning, hinders McConnell

Ryan Alessi
Ryan Alessi

The financial crisis imperiling Wall Street and Washington has, among other political effects, created a tale of two senators here in Kentucky.

One is the saga of a Senate Republican leader who's found himself in the precarious position of defending the Bush administration's $700 billion attempt to stave off economic collapse.

The bailout proposal has rankled already exasperated and nervous voters from coast to coast, including those in Kentucky, where Sen. Mitch McConnell is seeking election to a fifth term on Nov. 4.

As a result, McConnell has found himself in a free-fall in the polls over the last 10 days.

The other is a story of an often cranky Republican senator whose well-known penchant for ranting at the Federal Reserve has propelled him in the last week onto every cable news show known to man.

After a nail-biter of a re-election in 2004 against a then-largely-unknown rural state lawmaker, many political observers on both sides of the aisle questioned Sen. Jim Bunning's chance of winning a third term — or even running again — in 2010.

But suddenly, Bunning, who has called the proposed bailout "financial socialism' and "un-American," is being described by words like "prophetic."

"I think it increases his chances of getting re-elected," said state Rep. Adam Koenig, an Erlanger Republican. "Sure, he looks kind of prophetic. He was sometimes described as a voice in the wilderness and is now all over television because he was making accurate points."

Bunning vehemently opposed Congress's housing bailout last spring and has long criticized the Federal Reserve, Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Chairman Alan Greenspan. He has argued that the Fed overstepped its bounds and artificially manipulated the free markets instead of letting the system correct itself.

"When it turns out to be a problem and you predicted that problem, it's going to certainly be to your benefit," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles. "It makes you look like you had some idea you knew what you were talking about."

But Chandler, who was first elected to Congress in 2004, said a large contributing factor to the current collapse of Wall Street investment firms was lack of government oversight. That's an idea Bunning supported along with the rest of Kentucky's federal delegation in a 1999 vote.

Because of that, Democratic Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who narrowly lost that 2004 election to Bunning, said this financial crisis "actually makes Jim Bunning more vulnerable."

"And he never really explained to the public why he was railing (against the Fed)," Mongiardo said. When Bunning was struggling down the stretch in that 2004 race, it was McConnell, the more sure-handed politician and shrewd strategist, who stepped in during the last two weeks to provide advice and help campaigning.

Now, in a whiplash-inducing reversal of political fortunes, it's McConnell who has found himself plunging from a double-digit lead in most polls as recently as September.

Last week, a SurveyUSA poll released by WHAS-11 in Louisville showed McConnell leading Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford by 3 points. On Saturday, the Courier-Journal's Bluegrass poll had McConnell and Lunsford in a virtual tie.

Republicans say the drop could be temporary as voters vent their frustration at incumbents.

Koenig, the GOP state representative, said voters ultimately will recognize McConnell's seniority and power as the Republican Senate leader.

"Senator McConnell has a quality record of service to the state and has a large bankroll to talk about his record," Koenig said. "I'm pretty sure if he really wants to, he'd be happy to say, 'If you want to talk about businesses failing, let's talk about Bruce Lunsford.'"

Indeed, McConnell has used his latest commercial to highlight criticism of a veterans health company for which Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, has been an executive.

And Lunsford has struggled to home in on any cohesive message about McConnell or his role in the financial market turmoil.

On Thursday, he dodged answering specific questions from reporters about his opinion of the bailout and seemed to go after McConnell by using as many clichés as possible.

"Now the chickens have come home to roost," Lunsford said. "Now we're getting into a level that was built around a deck of cards that unfortunately we've got a gun to our head to do something."

But Mongiardo said the dip in McConnell's numbers indicates that he has at least some soft support from voters who could abandon him if they continue to feel they are indeed in the worst of times.

"In past elections, bad things were happening to neighbors or people down the street or in another county," Mongiardo said. "Now everybody's wallet is being affected. People are paying attention. And Mitch McConnell is right there."