Groups 'itching' to spend money on Kentucky's U.S. Senate race

A former Democratic candidate for Congress is heading a new effort to influence politics and policy in Kentucky that could play a role in this year's general election.

The group, called Kentucky Leadership, hopes to raise $1.5 million to $2 million to get out its message, said Andrew Horne, a Louisville lawyer who ran for U.S. House in 2006 and pulled out of a race for U.S. Senate in 2008.

The announcement is another indication that groups other than campaign committees and political parties will likely spend a lot of money in coming months to sway voters' opinions of candidates for federal office in Kentucky.

On Friday, for instance, the conservative Club for Growth, which reportedly spent millions in 2008 campaigns, announced it had endorsed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul. And earlier in the week, a group formed to oppose pro-union legislation criticized Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee.

"It's almost like the money is itching to be spent," said Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville who has followed the race.

A number of factors help explain why, Rhodebeck said.

One is that the race between Paul and Conway is close and the seat is open, with no incumbent to soak up the lion's share of contributions.

The race has national significance, with Republicans trying to hold on to what has been a relatively safe GOP seat and Democrats trying to take it away to counter expected losses elsewhere.

The national parties have signaled the race is a key battle, so groups that follow their lead will pour in cash.

Another key factor is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in January that loosened limits on spending by entities such as corporations and unions to influence political races.

Such groups can now spend unlimited amounts of money on messages calculated to help or hurt particular candidates, though they are not supposed to coordinate their spending with candidates.

The involvement of the Tea Party movement, whose mantle Paul claimed in the primary, also plays a role, Rhodebeck said, because the race will be seen as a test of the movement's ability to win.

Kentucky Leadership, the new group headed by Horne, is an organization commonly called a 527 because that's the section of the federal tax code under which such groups are organized.

The group wants to push for more "robust" economic policies aimed at creating economic growth in Kentucky, according to a news release.

"For too long the policies generated in Washington have done precious little except serve the special interests," the group said. "We believe our leaders should hold reckless multinational corporations accountable while providing opportunities for small businesses and Kentucky families."

Horne, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, provided few specific examples of issues the group will back.

As an example of what on which it will focus, however, he said Attorney General Jack Conway's call for a tax credit for businesses that hire more workers is a good idea.

Horne lost a bid for the Democratic U.S. House nomination in Louisville in 2006. In 2008, he ran briefly for the right to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, whom Horne has criticized.

Horne has contributed money to Conway's campaign.

A story in CQ Politics suggested spending by Kentucky Leadership will cut against Paul and McConnell, noting Horne's background and the fact that he has assembled a team of "Democratic strategists" to do polls, make ads and print direct-mail pieces.

However, Horne said Kentucky Leadership is not a partisan organization.

"We want to make sure the debate focuses on what can be done for Kentucky," he said in an interview.

Horne said Kentucky Leadership will be active in Kentucky this year but plans to continue efforts beyond the current political season.

It won't be the only group trying to focus the debate, or the vote.

Last week, the Herald-Leader reported that coal companies are considering setting up a 527 organization to work against candidates seen as less friendly to the industry than their GOP opponents, including Conway and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who represents Central Kentucky.

Another group called the Coalition to Protect Kentucky Jobs issued a news release last week criticizing Conway for his position on proposed federal legislation called the Employee Fair Choice Act, which would make it easier to organize unions.

Conway supports the proposal.

The coalition, funded by business interests, was set up to work against the legislation, which opponents argue will hurt businesses and cost people jobs.

The coalition is set up as a non-partisan education effort under a section of the tax code that bars it from endorsing or opposing specific candidates, said Scott Jennings, a Republican activist who serves as its director.

But after Conway said in a radio interview that he supported the employee-choice proposal, the coalition said "candidates in Kentucky should not follow the Jack Conway example."

The news release linked to responses to a questionnaire the coalition sent to candidates, which included Paul's response that he opposed the law.