By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
A powerful incumbent Republican U.S. Senator seems vulnerable in a state long ruled by Democrats and which still has a Democratic edge in registration.
But despite public polling which indicates 2014 might be the year when Democrats could take out Mitch McConnell, the Republican Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, they can’t seem to find a viable candidate.
It wasn’t always that way.
There was a time when Kentucky Democratic governors would go out and find a candidate to run in such a race, guaranteeing that candidate party backing and fundraising help.
“Yes,” said former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a Democratic state senator. “I was one of those governors.”
Carroll said more recent governors had a more difficult time attending to party business because of the increased time demands of the office in the era of legislative independence which began under the administration of John Y. Brown and has continued since.
But the party may be paying a price.
A Bluegrass Poll conducted for The Courier-Journal in January indicated only 17 percent of voters would definitely vote for McConnell if the election were held now while 34 percent of the 600 respondents would vote against him. Another 44 percent saying they would have to know who opposed McConnell before choosing.
McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, pointed out then that the poll offers no alternative candidate and such poll results often shift when a defined opponent is pitted against an incumbent.
But Democrats don’t yet have a obviously formidable opponent. On Monday Gov. Steve Beshear, who is widely popular according to previous surveys by the same Bluegrass Poll, said he isn’t interested. That’s also been the answer from Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and former state Auditor Crit Luallen.
Actress and activist Ashley Judd toyed with the idea of running but earlier this month said she’d decided against a race. Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has been encouraged to run but hasn’t said publicly if she will.
On top of that, McConnell has managed to turn to his public relations advantage — a ham-handed, alleged attempt by two Jefferson County Democratic activists to secretly tape one of McConnell’s campaign strategy sessions.
Carroll thinks Kentucky voters have grown weary of the man who is widely regarded as the architect of the Republican Party of Kentucky’s rise in what was once a one-party, Democratic state.
“It certainly seems to me to be an excellent time to go after Mitch McConnell,” Carroll said Tuesday. “The polls I’ve seen say only 17 percent would vote for Mitch McConnell.”
Carroll believes McConnell has reached a point with the public similar to that of former state Senate President David Williams: “nothing but a ‘no’ leader. He’s stymied the U.S. Senate, which has become a do-nothing Senate and that’s because of Mitch McConnell.”
So why are Democrats so reluctant to take on McConnell?
Luallen and Abramson say their interest lies in Frankfort and the office of governor, while Beshear, who lost to McConnell in a 1996 Senate race, said he does not plan to run for any office when his second term as governor expires in 2015. Grimes is still considering the race, but family friend and political consultant Dale Emmons said he expects her to decide soon.
“I think Alison Lundergan Grimes has the potential to be an excellent candidate,” Carroll said.
Carroll was asked who Democrats might run against McConnell if Grimes declines, but the former governor didn’t have an immediate answer.
The only announced candidate is Owensboro building contractor Ed Marksberry, who lost a congressional race in the 2nd District by 35 points two years ago to Republican Brett Guthrie.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s most recent report to the Federal Election Commission report shows he’s already raised $13.2 million for the 2014 campaign with $8.6 million still on hand.
In his day, Carroll said, governors were seen as at least technically the head of their parties, “responsible generally for the affairs of the party, the candidates and challengers of the party and the politics of the party.”
He recalls flying around the state in a helicopter addressing as many as 15 Democratic groups in a single day when he was governor. Carroll became governor while serving as lieutenant governor to Wendell Ford, who reluctantly ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974, defeating incumbent Republican Marlow Cook.
But recent governors haven’t made the party as high a priority.
Meanwhile McConnell – although he isn’t perceived to enjoy a deep well of personal affection even among Republicans – has recruited and supported candidates while helping the Republican Party of Kentucky win seven of Kentucky’s eight congressional seats and take over the state Senate.
State Rep. Steve Rudy, R-Paducah, recalls his first race for the state House.
“I was young and nobody knew me and I was taking on the chairman of the State Government Committee,” Rudy said. “But there he was, Mitch McConnell standing next to me with his arm around me. That’s why I won.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.