Kentucky Democrats again look to Bill Clinton for help on the trail

07/16/2010 04:01 PM

Bill Clinton campaigned in Bowling Green with Bruce Lunsford during the 2008 U.S. Senate race, which Lunsford lost to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

With President Barack Obama unpopular in Kentucky, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway will likely get help on the campaign trail this fall from a different Democratic president: Bill Clinton.

Clinton has become Obama’s go-to guy on the campaign trail in some southern states, and the White House has enlisted his help this fall in U.S. Senate races in Kentucky and Arkansas, CNN reported this week.

Allison Haley, spokeswoman for Conway’s campaign, told cn|2 Politics that she didn’t know “any details” about Clinton campaigning here this fall.

Clinton will be coming to Kentucky on Aug. 13 for a fund-raiser for the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center. That visit was announced in March. But Clinton won’t be doing any politicking during that visit, said Jerry Lundergan, the Lexington businessman who has been long-time friends with the Clinton family.

Lundergan said he and Clinton will likely talk about future trips to Kentucky for the former president to help Conway and other Democrats in this fall’s election.

“I don’t know that there’s been a firm commitment, but he has indicated he’ll help wherever he needs to help,” Lundergan said. Clinton stumped in his former home state of Arkansas this spring for Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who was embroiled in a tough Democratic primary.

And Clinton has made frequent visits to Kentucky over the last two years. He campaigned heavily for his wife, Hillary, in the weeks before Kentucky’s May 2008 presidential primary. He also stumped for Bruce Lunsford in 2008, who was then trying to unseat Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Conway, the state’s attorney general, is facing a tough race against Republican candidate Rand Paul. Paul has sought to link Conway to Obama, whose job approval rating in Kentucky is 37 percent, according to a poll last week released by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina.

“He will have to distance himself from his president and his party if he wishes to have any chance in Kentucky,” Paul said of Conway at their first forum of the general election last week. “We’ll see if he can do this. And do this in a believable way.”

But a visit from Clinton could be political gold for Conway, said Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon.

“He would absolutely help,” Logsdon said. “Remember the thing about President Clinton is he carried Kentucky twice.”

“(Clinton) is very popular with Democrats in Kentucky. He taught Democrats how to fight back (after the 1994 elections) and he’s a ‘new democrat’ that connects in Kentucky,” Logsdon added.

The former president’s star power also could attract scores of voters to an event with Conway who otherwise might not have been able to attract as many people.

“There’s a certain aura whether it’s your president or past president  (that comes to speak),” Tim Havrilek, a Democrat strategist from Hopkinsville who runs The Underground Rooster blog, said. “You know the saying, whenever Air Force One flies into a city it’s worth $1 million, well I think it’s the same with Bill. History has quickly re-written his presidency.”

Havrilek sees Clinton as possibly the only national Democrat that could help Conway this fall. The lack of a Democratic senator from Kentucky for so long or well-known conservative Democrat in Washington leaves little choice for Kentucky Democrats looking for a national figure for help, he said.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had anybody,” Havrilek said. “We don’t have a lot of high profile conservative Democrats that would be a crowd pleaser in Kentucky.”

So far, Conway has had the support for former Sen. Wendell Ford in the western part of the state, yet he still lost most of Western Kentucky to primary opponent Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo. Conway also has the support of former Gov. Paul Patton and House Speaker Greg Stumbo in Eastern Kentucky, but lost quite a few counties there in the primary to Mongiardo, who is from Hazard.

Much of Conway’s base of support comes out of the urban areas of Louisville and Lexington, which essentially carried him to his narrow primary victory.

National figures also generally create a fund-raising boon for candidates.

Paul has benefited from Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, with a fund-raiser in Washington and another planned in Lexington next month. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will headline a fund-raiser for Paul in Louisville on July 26, the Courier-Journal reported. Bush, who has helped past Kentucky Republican candidates such as former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, will be in town that to speak at the National Conference of State Legislatures event in Louisville.

Likewise, a Clinton appearance or two for Conway could have the same effect on attracting dollars and support.

“Getting Clinton would help with exposure and money,” Havrilek said. “It can energize a lot of people.”

- Kenny Colston with additional reporting by Ryan Alessi


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