Kentucky Senate Race: Three Things You Oughta Know

Nasty fights, a kingmaker challenged, and class warfare

Joe Gerth is a political reporter and columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest paper. The Louisville native and resident started at the paper as a clerk while still in college. Twenty-two years later, he’s covering Kentucky’s Democratic and Republican senate primaries, and readying for the general election match-up that’s just around the corner.

That means Gerth has a front row seat to two of the country’s most interesting and closest Senate primaries. The Democratic side features Louisvillian Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, facing off against Appalachian-born Daniel Mongiardo, the state’s lieutenant governor, who fell less than 25,000 votes short of defeating now-retiring Senator Jim Bunning just six years ago. Much of the state’s Republican establishment is backing secretary of state Trey Grayson, now facing a strong challenge from political newcomer Rand Paul, a ophthalmologist who is perhaps best known as being the son of Texas congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian hero. CJR spoke with Gerth last week. His edited and condensed thoughts are below.

1. On both sides, this is a very, very, ugly election, in which the candidates don’t like one another personally. Republicans aren’t used to this kind of primary in Kentucky, and there’s a question of if they’ll be able to pull together in the fall.

It’s sharper attacks then usual. On the Democratic side, we’ve got charges of ethical lapses flying in both directions. Dan Mongiardo is claiming that Jack Conway has accepted money from utility interests and then gone easy on them, when he’s supposed to be going to bat for Kentucky ratepayers when the utilities request rate increases. In the other direction, you’ve got Conway saying that Mongiarido has pocketed the $30,000 housing stipend he is paid by the state, and has used that to invest in real estate that he wants to develop into a subdivision. Recently Mongiardo was asked if he loses the primary is he going support Conway in the general election, and he would not say that he would. That’s where we are here.

As in most of these things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On the issue of the rate hikes, what you’ve got is a situation where it doesn’t look great for Conway. Mongiardo has claimed that he basically has decided these cases, but it’s not like Conway can go out and hand out rulings that are beneficial for these utility companies. He is a player in the cases, but there’s a professional division in the attorney general’s office that does nothing but handle rate cases, and then the public service commission sits down and decides whether the settlement is good for ratepayers, bad for ratepayers, or acceptable for ratepayers. So there is a backstop.

And again, it doesn’t look good, but there’s nothing illegal about what Mongiardo has done with his stipend. Kentucky used to have a lieutenant governor’s mansion. The cost of keeping that fully staffed was so great that a few years ago they took that away and just gave the stipend to help with living expenses and entrainment. It doesn’t say where you have to use it, how you have to use it, or if it has to be devoted to housing or anything. It’s just part of your salary package.

On the Republican side, Trey Grayson has accused Rand Paul of tax evasion and reported him to the IRS for it, and sent copies of the letter to newspapers. Paul recently said he’s very angry about this, and has referred to Grayson as a “third-grade snitch.”

Grayson may have Paul on this. What he has alleged is that his campaign has wrongly classified workers as independent contractors and therefore not paid withholding taxes. The CPAs I’ve talked to say that’s kind of a tough stretch.

The interesting thing about this is that, even before the Republicans emerged as a power over the past twenty-five years or so, Kentucky always had a two party system before. But the two parties were actually just personality-based wings of the Democratic party that fought tooth and nail and then came together in November.

The Republicans weren’t strong in Kentucky leading up to 1984, when Mitch McConnell was first elected U.S. Senator. They really pushed since then—they hold most of the U.S. Representative seats now, and in 2000 for the first time in history were able to take over the state senate. Through this growth, they really haven’t had the number of qualified candidates that the Democrats do. So they’ve done a pretty good job of making sure there’s one good Republican in the governor’s race, one good Republican in each of the senate races, and so forth. Two times in the last twenty years they’ve had contentions primaries in big races. Both times the nominee came out pretty wounded, and they weren’t able to coalesce when November came around. So if history is any indication, this might look like a Democratic year. But I tell you, from looking out the anger out there toward the Democratic Party, I’m not so sure I’d bet on them.

2. While Rand Paul is the darling of the tea party, his support is not just coming from the tea party.

While Paul is no doubt the tea party candidate, this race is not strictly about the tea party. We are still trying to get our hands around the impact of the tea party in Kentucky, as people are nationally. I’m not certain it’s strong enough to win elections on its own, and there are a few other things going on here that are interesting to watch.

Grayson is seen as McConnell’s man, and McConnell came out on May 4, after months of everyone knowing it, to finally, finally, say he was backing him. There’s a bit of a weariness out there of McConnell that’s probably been growing for a dozen, fifteen years. McConnell has been in the trenches helping select the party’s candidates, and folks are kind of tired of his kingmaker status. That might be working against Grayson to some degree.

Even though Grayson has been a Republican for thirteen years—a third of his life—some people think he’s a Johnny-Come-Lately to the party. He voted and volunteered for Bill Clinton in 1992. He kind of laughs if off and says in college a lot people tried marijuana, and I tried Bill Clinton. But you’re hard pressed to find people in Kentucky who didn’t vote for Clinton; he won here in ’92 and ‘96 and is very popular. There are a lot of Republicans who are former Democrats, but there are some who just don’t trust him because of that and are not about to back him.

Rand Paul is new and fresh, and he’s not backed by McConnell, and gosh darn it, they kind of like that idea. And his style and personality are figuring into this thing a lot. Grayson is a nice guy, a friendly guy, and he’s great one-on-one campaigning. But he’s a wonk, and when he gets up on the stump, there’s not a lot of spark there. And Paul, while he too is a bit on the wonky side, especially when he starts talking about auditing the Fed and that sort of thing, you can tell there’s a passion there. And I think that’s probably helped him quite a bit.

3. The Democratic battle between Mongiardo and Conway is really nothing more than a class warfare battle, rich versus poor, rural versus urban.

This whole thing started last year at Kentucky’s biggest political event, the picnic at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church in the little hamlet of Fancy Farm, in Graves county in far, far west Kentucky. Mongiardo shows up handing out silver spoons to point out the differences between he and that rich lawyer Jack Conway. Now he didn’t mention at the time that he himself is a surgeon who has invested in real estate nearly as much as Conway, who has a $1.7 million home in Louisville. But the idea is ‘I’m for the poor people; Jack Conway, who’s from Louisville, is for the rich people.’ Conway will dispute that and points out that when he was growing up, his dad, who’s now a very successful lawyer, was a high school teacher and coach who put himself through law school at night—that it was a very middle class upbringing and that his father’s wealth only came later in life.

But the point here is this whole Louisville angle. Kentucky and Louisville don’t always get along with each other. There’s mistrust out there in much of the state, where many look to Lexington more as the urban area they can associate with. It’s partially that Louisville has always been the big city; from the small towns with one stoplight, Louisville is kind of a daunting place. It could be in part racism—there are more African Americans in Louisville then in any other part of the state. It could be a fear of crime; Louisville has a pretty good crime rate for a city of its size, but we had probably seventy murders last year. A lot of these counties have maybe one or two murders a year. They don’t trust Louisville, and fear Louisville to some degree. It’s been generations and generations since a governor has come from Louisville, and the only one in this century actually listed his residence as a small suburb in Jefferson County, outside of Louisville.

Mongiardo is from Hazard, in eastern Kentucky. He grew up very poor, his dad I believe dropped out of high school and did manual labor all his life. His grandfather was a miner. Mongiardo says he grew up in an apartment over a laundromat. Before he was born, his mother had a child who died very young because doctors couldn’t figure out was going on. Hearing this story at a young age, he decided to be a doctor to bring medical care back to eastern Kentucky. He became an ear nose and throat doctor, became chief of surgery and chief of staff, and got into politics after that.

Conway appears to be the one that the Democratic Senatorial committee had wanted in the race, but they’ve not made an endorsement. They saw him as being able to raise the money needed to win this race. There’ve been some real concerns about Mongiardo’s ability to fundraise competitively, especially for a November election.

There isn’t a heck of a lot of difference on political issues. The thing they fight about the most is who is more in support of the health care package, and they’re competing to be strictly right in the middle. It’s really become more of a personality battle.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.