BRANDENBURG — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford have agreed on one thing this week: Their race is the second most important in the nation.
"Next to the presidential race, this is the biggest race in the country," Lunsford told more than 70 Democrats who crowded into the showroom of Ray's Ford-Mercury in Brandenburg on Wednesday morning. Unseating the sitting Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, he said, would be the "the biggest upset in the country."
Later that day, in a warmly lit dining room of the Olde Stone Inn in Simpsonville, McConnell encouraged sport-coat-clad supporters to double their work on his behalf.
"You will never have a bigger election than this one," said McCon nell, who has served as Senate GOP leader for nearly two years. "The U.S. Senate race in Kentucky has national and international implications. There is nothing the far left would like better besides winning the White House than to take me out."
In this case, the candidates aren't exaggerating about the nation taking notice.
The Kentucky race has snared headlines from the Washington Post, New York Times and L.A. Times; CNN and the BBC have taken notice. And, following on those reports, Kentucky's U.S. Senate race has attracted millions of dollars from groups who are airing what seem to be constant attack ads.
Some have gone after Lunsford; others have targeted McConnell.
The various groups range from political organizations, such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to ambiguously named and largely secretive organizations such as the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America or the First Amendment Alliance.
McConnell tells supporters at his campaign bus tour stops that his leadership position has made him "a lot bigger target." He doesn't complain about it. Instead, he tries to use it to his advantage.
"People who didn't even know my name a few years ago wish me ill. Imagine that — a nice guy like me," he said in Simpsonville. "So a lot of these nasty attack ads that you've seen on TV have been paid for by people from New York and San Francisco. And I'm confident nobody from San Francisco is going to elect the next senator from Kentucky."
Going after McConnell
One of the groups he referred to was the DSCC, which has raised $117 million for this election compared with $74 million collected by its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC hasn't bought Kentucky airtime.
While the DSCC won't say how much money it's shelled out in Kentucky, it has hammered McConnell on economic issues in commercials for a month. One ad with a Wild West theme hits McConnell for backing the $700 billion bailout bill. Another depicts him as a delivery man who "backed George Bush's crazy spending and delivered a $10 trillion debt."
A decade ago it would have been unheard of for a party to go after the leader of the opposing party in the Senate.
That changed in 2004, when Republicans invested millions of dollars to help Republican Sen. John Thune unseat then-Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle.
"The rules of etiquette were broken with Tom Daschle. Maybe they'll be restored after this election," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the DSCC chairman, told reporters in Washington Wednesday.
Schumer, however, said the Democratic Party has always seen the Kentucky race as competitive and that the ramped-up campaign efforts in the state weren't personal. "We did not go after a Kentucky seat any more or less because McConnell is the minority leader," he said.
Another group, the Public Campaign Action Fund, bought $380,000 worth of airtime in Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky cable networks last week to run an ad outlining McConnell's history of taking campaign donations from industries and backing legislation favorable to them. The group kicked in another $800,000 this week to keep running that spot.
Knocks at Lunsford
Business groups supportive of McConnell waded into the Kentucky Senate race with mostly energy-oriented ads this summer. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce funded commercials that tout some of McConnell's votes on health care issues, such as his support for the 2003 bill that changed Medicare prescription drug payments.
Lately, other groups, such as the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, have aimed at Lunsford.
That generic-sounding foundation is a 501(c) 4 non-profit group set up last year by supporters of GOP presidential candidate John Mc Cain. Its radio ad in Louisville says Lunsford waited "almost a month to say whether he was for or against" the $700 billion financial industry bailout bill. (Lunsford did wait about three weeks to come out in favor of the bill.) The spot goes on to say that Kentucky needs a steady hand to ensure "an economy for Main Street, not Wall Street."
Another group, the First Amendment Alliance claims in a radio commercial that Lunsford helped pass a gas tax that resulted in steep increase in the per-gallon-levy. Lunsford was an aide to Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. when the legislature passed a measure allowing the gas tax to creep up only when the price of wholesale gasoline skyrocketed.
And a third group, Americans for Job Security, criticizes Lunsford in radio ads declaring that his support for letting Bush's tax cuts expire would cause the tax bill for a family of four making $50,000 to more than double.
Lunsford said in an interview that he favors the repeal of tax breaks for "the ultra-wealthy, those above $250,000."
The overarching point of the ad from the Americans for Job Security group, whose Web site is www.savejobs.org, is that Democratic policies are wrong for the country.
It has targeted other Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, such as Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Lunsford has tried to reassure Kentucky voters that he and other Democratic candidates such as Hagan, Shaheen and Mark Warner of Virginia, are best to represent their values, particularly on economic issues.
"They are quality people that everyone in this room would like," he said Wednesday in Hardinsburg.
On the other side, Kentucky state Senate President David Williams, the Burkesville Republican who is McConnell's campaign chairman, told GOP activists Wednesday that keeping McConnell as minority Senate leader is important.
"If Barack Obama were to be elected, just think what sort of Washington we'd have with Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and ... 'Dirty Harry' Reid and those folks running the United States Congress," he said, referring to the House speaker, House financial services committee chairman and Senate Democratic leader, respectively. "The Democrats should want him so that he could protect them from their own worst inclinations."
McConnell reiterates that the decision is ultimately in the hands of Kentuckians.
"This race is being watched — not only in Kentucky but all over the country," McCon nell said. "And so the question is: Are we going to let them tell us who ought to be our senator?"