Facing anger, McConnell gets ready for trail

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wearing a bull’s-eye and fresh off a party defeat in his home state, is ginning up his reelection machine by hitting the air with new television ads.

After Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher was trounced Tuesday night by Gov.-elect Steve Beshear, national and state Democrats have pointed to the landslide loss as another sign that McConnell is vulnerable.

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McConnell’s camp accurately notes that it’s hard for the senator to be afraid when the Democrats have yet to produce an opponent. Still, the minority leader doesn’t seem to be taking any chances.

On Friday, the campaign hit the air with advertisements in the Louisville and Lexington markets, and the campaign has had staffers on the ground since mid-summer.

The McConnell campaign said the TV ads have been planned for months as a way to reintroduce the senator to the commonwealth after the dust had settled from the off-year election.

But national and state Democrats have seized on the buy as evidence that McConnell, whose approval numbers have fallen below 50 percent, is running scared.

“If I’m sitting in their situation, I’d say the same thing,” said Billy Piper, McConnell’s chief of staff. “Who exactly are we worried about? There’s no opponent.”

But that could soon change for McConnell, with opponents lining up not only on the Democratic side but from an angry Republican-turned-Independent as well.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy has made no secret of his anger over what he sees as McConnell’s role in dividing the state party by throwing Fletcher under the bus at the onset of his administration’s scandals and backing former Rep. Anne Northup in the GOP primary last spring. He believes this led to Fletcher’s defeat this week.

McConnell officially stayed neutral in the primary, and Fletcher’s campaign team was grateful to McConnell for what it said were his exhaustive efforts on Fletcher’s behalf, according to Piper.

But Forgy is furious, and he told The Hill Thursday he is not ruling out an independent bid to unseat McConnell, though he insists he doesn’t want to be a spoiler.

Forgy, who was the party’s nominee for governor in 1995, said he is “pretty sore” at McConnell and the state party for what he sees as their betrayal of Fletcher.

“The only difference between that and cannibals is that cannibals normally don’t eat their friends,” Forgy said.

McConnell’s camp declined to comment on Forgy, and while they insist that the senator will “run the most aggressive race in the country,” they note Republicans’ silver linings in winning other statewide races Tuesday night and the absence of a credible Democratic challenger.

The latter could be shifting, however.

State Auditor Crit Luallen is fresh off a convincing reelection win that seems to have propelled her to rock-star status within state and national Democratic circles.

The emerging consensus out of Kentucky is that Luallen would be the strongest challenge to McConnell because of her apparent popularity and internal state party polling that shows McConnell does more poorly with women voters than “Republicans typically do.”

“I think everybody believes that she would be an exceptionally strong candidate,” said Jonathan Miller, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Having one of our stars who also happens to be a woman, I imagine would be a pretty formidable opponent,” he said.

A spokesman for Luallen said she is taking a breath after her reelection win Tuesday night, and is considering a run. The spokesman would not offer a timeframe for Luallen’s decision.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and his Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have not been shy in the past about tipping the primary scales in favor of the primary candidate they think is the strongest, and one source indicated that Luallen appears to be emerging as their favorite.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the DSCC, declined to comment on any discussion Schumer might or might not have had with Luallen.

State and national Republicans insist that Fletcher’s defeat was an anomaly, and McConnell is not in any serious danger.

Kentucky voters’ willingness to split the ticket Tuesday night does lend some credence to that notion as two GOPers — Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball star — both cruised to reelection on a night that was otherwise bleak for Republicans.

“There was no repudiation of the Republican Party in this state,” said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.

The state GOP is set to gather this weekend for one of its two annual state conventions in Lexington. McConnell, Fletcher and the rest of the party’s state central committee are scheduled to be there. And Robertson said any talk of a divided party that could hurt McConnell will be put to rest.

“I think we’re going to walk out of that meeting a very unified party,” Robertson said.