Hopefuls getting a regular earful

Ryan Alessi
Ryan Alessi

If any candidates aren't sure what issue voters want to discuss, then they haven't done much campaigning lately.

Economic concerns have dominated the political discourse, all but taking over the conversations in the presidential race and state legislative races alike.

And the intense voter interest in all things economy-related is having some unusual effects.

Democratic and Republican challengers are running parallel commercials against their incumbent opponents over the $700 billion financial bailout. Those incumbents are defending their votes by pointing to the folks on the other side of the aisle who also supported it.

And all the while, voters are soaking in as much information as they can and engaging at a level rarely seen in recent elections.

"Usually when I knock on doors, the first question I get is: 'Are you pro-life or not?' Now, that's way down the list," said Republican state Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger. Koenig has gone door-to-door in seven contested primary or general election races in conservative Kenton County over the last 10 years.

To find an election cycle so influenced by economic conditions, one has to look back to the 1992 recession-affected presidential election when Bill Clinton's campaign coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid." But the fact that Clinton staffers used the phrase as a mantra to keep the campaign on message suggests that even then the issue wasn't as dominant as it is now. This time, candidates don't need reminders. They're getting regular earfuls.

"People are angry, they're upset and they're worried," said Kathy Groob, a Democrat running for state Senate in Northern Kentucky. "I'm hearing about their concern over their retirement. But mostly it's making ends meet, groceries and gas. Working families and younger people, they're worried about jobs and health insurance."

She said she's fallen behind schedule because people want to stand on their porches and talk about those issues. That rarely happened during her first run for office in 2004, she said.

Voters say they just want some sort of reassurance, although they're looking for it in different ways.

Doug and Kathy Bagby, both 40, live in Logan County and work at Russellville's Carpenter Co., which makes carpet and mattress cushions. The plant just announced it was cutting back from six-day work weeks to four days.

"There are not many orders coming in," Kathy Bagby said. She said she's worried about her family specifically and the economy overall. "Jobs are starting to get a bit scarce."

The Bagbys, both registered Democrats, support U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race because they say he has reliably secured federal funding for the state.

Kathy Bagby pointed to the $700 billion bill McConnell supported that gave the U.S. Treasury wide latitude to try to stabilize U.S. credit and investment markets. "If they didn't hurry up and bail us out, we were going to be heading downward in a recession," she said.

Many voters are tuning out the blame game being played by both parties over which policies or bills led to the mess.

To them, both Democrats and Republicans should share blame, whether it's for the 1999 financial deregulation bill or a lack of oversight over banking and investment firms over the last two presidential administrations.

"The problem that exists is here," said Jimmy Wright, 67, of Russellville.

Wright, who said he's voting against McConnell, added that he's upset about taxpayers covering the $700 billion bailout for banks and investment firms, as well as the $10 trillion national debt.

McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, has been targeted over the bailout vote in recent commercials by opponent Bruce Lunsford and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

McConnell has taken the unusual step of deflecting the criticism by pointing to the prominent Democrats, such as Barack Obama, DSCC Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville. He says it's hypocritical for the Democrats to hit him with the issue when many of them voted for it, too.

It remains to be seen whether Kentuckians will take out their frustration on McConnell. But Tom Jones, a Republican state Senate candidate from Hopkinsville, said voters he's talked to remain upset over the approval of the $700 billion package.

"They mention that we shouldn't have done the bailout," said Jones. "They say the ones who voted against it are the ones who have the sense."

When asked whether he thought that might hurt McConnell, Jones said, "I don't think it's going to help him that he did it. I hope it doesn't hurt him."