Friday, November 1, 2002

A four-peat for McConnell?

N.Ky. typically backs Republican incumbent

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Northern Kentucky has always been good to Mitch McConnell.

And that could be bad on Election Day for Lois Combs Weinberg.

Mr. McConnell, the GOP's three-term U.S. senator from Louisville, has relied on the Republican-heavy, politically conservative voting precincts in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties to rack up big margins in all of his statewide victories dating back to 1984.

"Mitch McConnell, like most federal candidates, runs well in Northern Kentucky," said Kenton County Republican Party Chairman Greg Shumate. "It's a reflection of the conservative nature of this area. And it shows that folks in Northern Kentucky appreciate the clout Mitch McConnell brings on our behalf."

Even Democrats painfully admit that Mrs. Weinberg, an Eastern Kentucky Democrat and daughter of former Gov. Bert T. Combs making her first run for office, is having a tough time taking on the incumbent Republican.

Mr. McConnell, who appears nearly weekly on Sunday news issues shows, is known as one of the toughest and most-well funded campaigners in the country.

"Mitch McConnell may well be the most difficult senator to run against as far as a Democrat taking on a Republican," said Campbell County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Mann. "He is able to command huge sums of money. He has strong name recognition and all the other things that come with incumbency. That makes him an extremely formidable candidate for any Democrat."

That said, Democrats have been impressed with Mrs. Weinberg's "grassroots" campaign effort in the face of Mr. McConnell's war chest, which has totaled more than $5 million raised for this election compared to about $2 million for the Democrat.

"Lois is doing as well as any Democrat could who is not a statewide office holder," Mr. Mann said. "Her base of support is among certain groups of Democrats who are out working for her. They are trying their best to move it from the grassroots up. But that's always a challenge."

Northern Kentucky Democratic leaders are taking a familiar shot at Mr. McConnell, attacking his opposition to campaign finance reform and trying to label him as a pawn of the special interest groups that contribute millions to his political campaigns.

"If you want voters to return a senator to Washington who will continue a vigorous fight against campaign finance reform and who continues to advocate for special interests, then vote for Mitch McConnell," said Kristi Nelson, a strategist in the Boone County Democratic Party.

"However, if voters want to send a senator to Washington who will fight for advancements in education, who will work against privatizing Social Security and work for other important issues that affect Kentucky families and children, then they better vote for Lois Combs Weinberg," she said.

Mrs. Weinberg takes a similar shot at Mr. McConnell in her most recent radio ad, which she criticizes the senator for voting six times against the federal government providing a prescription drug benefit through Medicare "while taking thousands (of dollars) from the drug industry."

"Kentucky families are my special interest," she says in the ad.

Mr. McConnell has said he voted against the Democratic versions of the legislation, and that he will continue to push for a benefit that does pay some of the costs of drugs provided through Medicare.

The McConnell campaign is equally eager to point out where Mrs. Weinberg gets her support, specifically organizations and individuals that are not often embraced or downright spurned by Northern Kentucky voters - labor unions, women's groups, abortion rights activists, Democratic Party campaign organizations, and politicians that include former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. and former first lady Hillary Clinton.

Mrs. Weinberg has done little advertising in the Northern Kentucky market and made her last campaign stop in the region Oct. 25, and that was mainly to do media interviews. In addition, her final day of campaigning Monday will not include a visit anywhere in Northern Kentucky.

By contrast Mr. McConnell was in the region Wednesday campaigning and will visit Northern Kentucky Monday as part of his traditional Election Eve fly-around to the state's major media markets.

"Lois Weinberg does not have a message Northern Kentucky voters want to hear," said Hunter Bates, Mr. McConnell's campaign manager. "She has clearly written the area off."

In a move to solidify its local base, the McConnell campaign has circulated a list of $20.4 million in federal funding the senator has secured for Northern Kentucky projects and programs, including $4 million for Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport navigation system; $1.25 million for math and science education programs and job training programs at Northern Kentucky University; $1 million for new buses for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK); $500,000 for flood conservation in and Boone and Kenton counties; and $200,000 for equipment for the Kenton County Sheriff's office.

Northern Kentucky has returned the favor in Mr. McConnell's three previous Senate campaigns.

Here are the vote totals for Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in those races according to the Secretary of State's office:

1984 Mr. McConnell, 53,480, Democrat U.S. Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston, 36,013.

1990: Mr. McConnell, 38,898, Democrat Harvey Sloane, 23,504.

1996: Mr. McConnell, 69,374, Democrat Steve Beshear, 30,254.


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