Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Democrats load up to unseat McConnell

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT WRIGHT — The crowd gathered Monday night in the back room at Walt's Hitching Post didn't come for the restaurant's famous ribs.

        They were hungry for politics.

        About 50 members of the Kenton County Democratic Club pulled their chairs and tables in a circle to hear a 15-minute talk from Lois Combs Weinberg, the eastern Kentucky Democrat running in the May Senate primary for the seat now held by three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

        Mrs. Weinberg, the daughter of former Gov. Bert T. Combs, announced that she had raised more than $1 million for her campaign.

        The amount is a record for challengers to Mr. McConnell at this stage of the campaign.

        “It is becoming increasingly apparent that we will have the financial resources necessary to deliver our message of leadership for Kentuckians in the November election,” Mrs. Weinberg said.

        “And we can keep this going. We'll have what we need to be competitive.”

        Though Mrs. Weinberg — who has never run for or held office — faces former western Rep. Tom Barlow in the May primary, she has her sights set clearly on running against the incumbent.

        And her campaign platform will include attacks on Mr. McConnell for being the most vocal opponent in Washington of campaign finance reform.

        “Mitch McConnell is the poster boy of the privileged and powerful,” Mrs. Weinberg told the gathering of Democrats. “But this race is not about the rich and the powerful. It's about what is good for Kentucky and for our children and grandchildren.”

        Other political foes have tried to use campaign finance against Mr. McConnell with little success. Mr. McConnell defends the issue with a First Amendment argument, saying courts have ruled that money equals speech when it comes to making a campaign contribution to a political candidate.

        He is a top-notch fund-raiser and a hard campaigner who won his 1996 re-election race so convincingly over Democrat Steve Beshear that the media called the race an hour before the polls closed in western Kentucky.

        Because there is a Democratic primary, Mr. McConnell has said little about Mrs. Weinberg. He has not yet filed the campaign finance report due to the Federal Election Commission by Jan. 31.

        But on his last report, which was filed at the end of June, Mr. McConnell had $2.5 million.

        Mr. McConnell also has indicated he is taking Mrs. Weinberg seriously, noting that every woman who ran for the Senate in 2000 — former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York among them — won.

        Mrs. Weinberg said half of her roughly 2,000 campaign contributions came from women. Just $16,500 of the $1,047,132 she has raised came from Political Action Committees (PACs).

        “Republicans around the state are prepared to work hard, organize and get out the vote to elect Senator McConnell to a record fourth term,” said Kentucky Republican Party vice chair Damon Thayer.

        Democrats say that Mr. McConnell is vulnerable.

        “If the (Democratic) candidate runs the correct race and exposes his vulnerability on the (campaign) money factor, then you can beat Mitch McConnell,” said Kenton County Democratic Party chairman Nathan Smith, who attended Mrs. Weinberg's Monday night appearance but has not endorsed her because there is a primary election.

        “She has raised a lot of money. That's impressive,” Mr. Smith said. “But Mitch will be tough. He'll have the money. He'll go through every bag in (Washington) D.C. to get it.”


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