GOP Leader May Face Home State Primary Challenge

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Before he led his party in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was credited for building his home-state GOP into a competitive political force. But after a bloody GOP primary earlier this year for the governor's race, some Bluegrass state Republicans are not ready to unite behind the Senate minority leader as he prepares for his 2008 reelection bid.

"I'm very proud of Mitch and all of his accomplishments, but I feel like he is partly the cause of this," said Velma Childers, 77, of Pikeville, Ky., who was the state co-finance chair for George H.W. Bush's presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992, and a former state GOP committee member.

"I know a lot of Republicans who are angry at him and several have told me that. It broke my heart what has happened to my party," Childers said.

Though the national Democratic Party is targeting McConnell's seat, the divided GOP in Kentucky might prompt a legitimate primary challenge against the four-term incumbent.

Larry Forgy, the 1995 Republican nominee for governor, is considering taking up the task based almost entirely on what McConnell does to help embattled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher in his race against Democrat Steve Beshear, to be decided on Nov. 6.

"He can not count on a united Republican front in 2008 in the event that the damage he's done to Gov. Fletcher proves to be fatal," Forgy told Cybercast News Service.

Though McConnell was officially neutral, it's widely believed by Forgy and other Fletcher supporters that the senator orchestrated former Republican Rep. Ann Northup's unsuccessful primary challenge against Fletcher. In the post-primary, some Fletcher supporters accused McConnell of not doing enough to help the governor.

Forgy, who almost won the governor's office in 1995, is known for being a master at plain-spoken red meat stump speeches.

"I believe Sen. McConnell has done serious damage to Gov. Fletcher, and I'm sore about it, as are about 30-35 percent of Republicans in the state," Forgy said.

"I don't have the desire to be in the U.S. Senate. I think it's a corporate mess. But if Mitch McConnell thinks he can continue to dump on Gov. Fletcher and have no retribution in 2008, he's got another thing coming," he added.

This party rift stemmed from a state employee hiring scandal that led to Fletcher's indictment on misdemeanor charges in state court. The charges were dismissed, but Fletcher faced criticism from his own party while battling the Democratic attorney general who pursued the case.

McConnell has raised $9.15 million and has $6.8 million on hand for his 2008 Senate race.

Forgy has raised no money, and disavows the Draft Forgy Web site as a probable Democratic dirty trick to further divide the party. Still, Forgy - an attorney who was the state's campaign chairman for President Ronald Reagan in 1984 - thinks he would start out with a substantial number of people already against McConnell.

"I would run to win, but what I'm telling you is that I could get 30-35 percent of the vote without spending any money," Forgy said. "It would be David vs. Goliath, with an articulate enough David."

McConnell's chief of staff Billy Piper thinks there is no reason for a Republican rift in the state.

"Sen. McConnell enthusiastically supports Gov. Fletcher and has appeared at fundraisers with him and looks forward to campaigning with him in the future," Piper told Cybercast News Service.

On this point, Forgy was cynical.

"We don't need him in rural Kentucky," Forgy said, as Fletcher is already doing well in many rural regions. "We need him in eastern Louisville at precinct meetings."

Twice in the last eight years, an incumbent U.S. senator was defeated in a primary.

Rep. John Sununu beat Sen. Bob Smith in a New Hampshire Republican primary in 2002 and went on to win the Senate seat. In 2006, businessman Ned Lamont beat Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary. Lieberman held on to the seat by running as an independent.

But among other factors that make a Kentucky primary challenge unlikely is that in the Sununu and Lamont cases, they weren't the leaders of their party, said Kirk Randazzo, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

"Regardless of any animus in the Republican Party, I don't think they would be so short-sighted as to give up the leverage of having a party leader," Randazzo told Cybercast News Service.

"It's one thing for Forgy to threaten to do this. It's another thing for him to do this to damage McConnell. It's yet another thing - that doing this would hurt the party overall," he said.

While Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle was beaten in his home state of South Dakota in 2004, Piper said Daschle was in a red state running against the values of his constituents.

"Sen. McConnell can say the same thing in London, Ky., that he will say on the Senate floor," Piper said.

Though McConnell has an 89 percent voting record with the American Conservative Union, he's not immune from criticism on the right. The Club for Growth, a conservative group that gets involved in Republican primaries, criticized McConnell for voting for four Democratic appropriations bills, three of which President Bush vowed to veto.

McConnell is "looking more and more like his counterpart across the aisle, Majority Leader Harry Reid," said the Club for Growth in a statement.

Reid's name will likely be mentioned in a primary face-off but not against McConnell. Reid and Forgy were classmates at George Washington University School of Law, and Forgy contributed $1,000 to Reid's 1998 Senate campaign.

A McConnell supporter, perhaps indicating opposition research, was quick to point out that this was Forgy's only contribution to a federal candidate except for when his sister ran for a U.S. House seat in 2004. Federal Election Commission reports since 1992 confirm that.

Forgy dismisses the conspiracy theory: that Reid is encouraging him to run.

"That's ridiculous," Forgy said. "I gave $1,000 in 1998, because he was my moot court partner in law school. Anybody who tries to contend that somehow or another I'm a Democrat needs to read up a little bit."

Thus far, no definite Democratic candidate has been identified in the state. But Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, said the minority leader is vulnerable in his home state because of recent votes on the war in Iraq and children's health insurance.

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