Sen. McConnell In A Tough Race In Kentucky

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has represented Kentucky for 24 years. The Republican leader once seemed to have a safe seat. But the perilous state of the economy seems to be helping Democrats running for the House and Senate. Polls indicate the race between McConnell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford is tightening.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go now from Colorado to Kentucky where the Republican leader of the United States Senate once seemed to have a safe seat. That was before the economy hit the skids. NPR's Brian Naylor traveled to Kentucky for a close-up look at Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It's a crisp fall morning in Owensboro, Kentucky, perfect for the Reid's Orchard Apple Festival.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

NAYLOR: There are booths displaying quilts, people lined up for pork chop sandwiches and, of course, apples. And there's some politicking going on, too.

(Soundbite of politicking)

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Hi. Mitch McConnell.

Unidentified Woman: Nice to see you.

Senator MCCONNELL: I'm glad to see you. How are you?

Unidentified Woman: Good. How are you?

Senator MCCONNELL: Fine.

Unidentified Woman: Good luck.

Senator MCCONNELL: Thank you very much.

NAYLOR: Mitch McConnell makes his way deliberately across the festival grounds alongside his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, shaking hands, greeting supporters, and making small talk. McConnell has been in the Senate for 24 years and has risen to Senate Republican leader. The way he sees it, Kentucky voters would lose a lot if they turn him out.

Senator MCCONNELL: The biggest issue in this race is whether or not our small state is going to continue to have a person of significant clout in Washington or whether we're going to trade that person in for a rookie who is only a few years younger than I am who would have no chance of ever being in this kind of influential position.

NAYLOR: Some of McConnell's TV ads make the same point, emphasizing the bacon McConnell has brought home to Kentucky, some $500 million worth last year alone.

(Soundbite of Senator Mitch McConnell campaign ad)

Senator MCCONNELL: Building Western Kentucky's future in tough economic times. It's a challenge. That's why I secured $60 million to promote economic development along our riverfronts in Owensboro and Henderson, and support other key projects needed to ensure the community's growth and prosperity.

NAYLOR: The experience and clout argument makes sense to McConnell supporter Terry Llewellyn(ph) of Philpot.

Ms. TERRY LLEWELLYN: Well, you know, he's been a senator for a long time, and he has a lot of experience in the Senate. He knows his way around real well. So I think he would be a good leader still.

NAYLOR: But experience in Washington is clearly a negative with many voters this year, like Stacey Gator(ph) of Owensboro.

Ms. STACEY GATOR: He's been in there for 24 years. And to me, if you sit and look at the economy right now, we need a change. And that's what I believe.

(Soundbite of music)

NAYLOR: Across the state from Owensboro, Bruce Lunsford is at a dinner rally with the Madison County Democrats in Richmond. He makes McConnell's tenure in Washington an issue too.

(Soundbite of Bruce Lunsford campaign rally)

Mr. BRUCE LUNSFORD (Kentucky Democratic Candidate for Senate): You can stand in a garage for 24 years, and it won't make you a car. And just having the title "leader" is not going to make you a leader. This is the time to get leadership out of good ideas, fresh ideas, and people want to hear what you got to say.

NAYLOR: Lunsford made millions of dollars starting a health care company. He's had less luck in politics, running two unsuccessful campaigns for governor.

(Soundbite of homecoming parade)

NAYLOR: At a homecoming parade later that evening in Richmond, he told me the economy is the first, second, and third issue in Kentucky. He's critical of the financial rescue package Congress approved earlier this month, though he doesn't say how he would have voted.

Mr. LUNSFORD: What I would have done in the Senate, I would have gotten my say so. And my say so would have been this is too quick. We should let those senators and congressmen who are not running for election stand here and look at this over a couple of weeks and see if we can get a handle on what this all means.

NAYLOR: Lunsford has had to parry some of McConnell's attack ads which accuse a health care company Lunsford once ran - and where he now sits on the board - of mistreating patients, including veterans.

(Soundbite of Bruce Lunsford campaign ad)

Mr. LUNSFORD: I'm Bruce Lunsford, and I approve this message.

Unidentified Man: Some political attacks are beyond the bounds of decency. Mitch McConnell's latest ad blames Bruce Lunsford for a death. The Herald Leader reports the charge is not backed up on screen or off with any documentation. Does McConnell have no shame? He'll say anything to hide his record.

NAYLOR: Lunsford has been getting some help from the Democratic Senate Campaign Community, which has been running an ad critical of McConnell's support for the bailout bill even though most Democrats voted for it as well. They'd love to knock off the Republican leader on their way to amassing a filibuster-proof majority of 60. McConnell says he's not worried.

Senator MCCONNELL: But I think there will be enough Republicans plus discerning Democrats in the Senate after January to keep a kind of far-left agenda from steamrolling through the Senate like it often does through the House.

NAYLOR: Polls have shown McConnell with a steady lead over Lunsford, though the race has gotten quite a bit closer in the last few weeks. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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