Hillary Clinton is dead, oh my
Why a noncompetitive Senate primary is the best thing Kentucky’s got going right now
The fantasy that Sen. Hillary Clinton might use her appearance in Louisville last Friday night to announce she is leaving the Democratic presidential primary to make way for a great healing of her fractured party did not play out.
Instead, she spent nearly 45 minutes talking about how much better Democrats are for America than Republicans — not, mind you, how much better she is than any Republican. Clinton sported the conciliatory tone that has surfaced perfunctorily since last Tuesday, when she suffered a 14-point loss to Sen. Barack Obama in the North Carolina primary and won narrowly in Indiana, another sharp blow to an already weakened campaign. Though the junkyard dog Clinton came through later in her Louisville speech — “It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and it’s going to take …” — the senator from New York kept the focus on President Bush, Sen. John McCain and a pinch of Kentucky praise for good measure.
The crowd in the Kentucky International Convention Center was light, with a full dinner section before the stage but only about half of the bleacher seats occupied, as well as a small section of placard-waving Obama supporters quietly flaunting a growing margin of confidence. Clinton’s supporters cover a narrower range than Obama’s, but the most common remains the middle-aged white woman floating on the overwhelming energy of a woman at this level of the American Dream.
Some remained all Rocky complex about their woman — she’s the only one who can beat McCain! She can win this nomination! — while others seemed ready to move with the tide.
“I think she’s a great leader for the country, but also, as a woman, I think she really is somebody that’s going to help women realize we can be a part of this,” Laura Gaeta said. “I don’t know that she can (win). I think it would cause some division in the party if it relies on superdelegates — that could upset people. I’d like to see her be a key player.”
Beanie McNally said she was happy to hear Clinton suggest she would support the Democratic nominee regardless.
“That’s what I think all supporters — Hillary and Barack supporters — needed to hear, that she’s going to make the effort to join in regardless of who gets the nomination,” she said.
Along with a sense of inevitability, there is an overwhelming sadness now to Clinton’s campaign. Her voice hoarse, Clinton was deflated and down-tempo in Louisville. A reporter there called it the “eulogy tour.” An inside count for her visit pegged attendance at fewer than 1,000 people. The room ate the crowd up.
By contrast, the line outside Monday’s Obama rally was seven-people wide around five square blocks — during his speech. Organizers turned people away. The estimated crowd was more than 10,000, filling the same room Clinton couldn’t three days before. The same estimates said some 4,000 didn’t get in. There were street vendors.
The energy in Obama’s room was brilliant compared to Clinton’s. It is clear he is edging toward a peak, despite the notion that he is not supposed to be competitive in Kentucky.
This affection for the Obama-Clinton pseudo battle has engendered a rare dynamic in our state’s politics: For the first time in recent memory, Kentucky’s presidential primary has gotten the attention of the mainstream media. And, just as it should be, there is little reason for enthusiasm about Kentucky’s primary. It does not matter. It never did.
Despite the Obama destiny, too many Democrats believe that Clinton still has some path to victory — other than, of course, this one: Enough superdelegates decide to go against the popular vote, the pledged-delegate count and, now, the pledged superdelegates, and nominate her. That is not math. That is a machine. It will reek of the 2000 election, of the politics of George W. Bush, and it will destroy the Democratic Party.
It is also implausible, a classic case of hype-induced hysteria, and it is for naught: Virtually nothing on the ballot here is competitive. When the wave of presidential publicity rolled back earlier this week, it left Kentucky staring at a beach of dirty sand.
There was a moment before Clinton’s appearance when Bruce Lunsford and Greg Fischer — by the look of their ads now locked in a death battle in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, although polls say differently — suddenly were back to back, then side by side, awkwardly talking to a handful of supporters and trying to avoid eye contact. It turned out to be little more than a good photo-op, but it was instructive: This primary is something like Clinton-Obama in tone, but on a much smaller scale. The strange thing is, the race is not close.
According to a SurveyUSA poll released Monday, Fischer would capture just 23 percent of the vote to Lunsford’s 41 percent (Fischer has made strides since the start of the campaign, when he was polling in single digits). Neither was there for Obama on Monday. Instead, they took part in a debate on KET featuring all seven of the candidates running for the chance to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall. None of them have even trumped “other” in the polls — that category had a projected 12 percent of the vote as of Monday.
This is your high-profile race, Kentucky. McConnell is the big dog, and given the anti-Bush mood of the country, this is the year to beat him, for McConnell walks in lockstep with the president. But not many people seem to be paying attention. Most of those I asked at both presidential rallies didn’t know much about Lunsford or Fischer, and said they weren’t paying attention to that race.
Naturally, I thought. This is the only one that could matter.
There are similarities between Lunsford and Fischer. Both are successful businessmen: Lunsford started the healthcare company Vencor in 1985, and, as he’s wont to say on the campaign trail, helped transform the business from three employees to 62,000 in a few years. Lunsford is also a principal in Hart-Lunsford Pictures, a Louisville-based film production company, and an owner of thoroughbred horses. Fischer co-invented the combination ice/drink dispenser when he was 25, turned around a failing ice and beverage company and then started a successful investment firm called Iceberg Ventures. Both men are Kentucky natives, and quite wealthy.
Lunsford and Fischer have each accumulated a string of strong endorsements. Lunsford is pulling the organized labor vote: 17 substantial state unions have endorsed him. As well, he has the support of numerous state legislators.
Fischer is much more Louisville-centric: former mayor Dave Armstrong, former 3rd District Rep. Ron Mazzoli, several state representatives and a senator, and some members of the Metro Council have signed on.
Both men are solidly Democratic: They urge a responsible redeployment of troops from Iraq, trade that is both free and fair, a refocusing of American energy policy on renewable and alternative fuels — wind, solar and “clean coal” — and tax breaks for the middle class rather than the wealthy. Lunsford is intent on changing the Farm Bill, which currently gives huge subsidies to large-scale industrial farms rather than the small farms that are more prominent in Kentucky. Fischer said laws against mountaintop removal mining should be enforced across the board, and that the government should look to further protect watersheds from mining-related damage. Both men urge a shift toward broader, cheaper healthcare: Fischer wants to be on a path to national healthcare, while Lunsford would vote to expand federal healthcare programs for children.
The campaigns of both men have also accused the other of “swift-boating” with negative, personal attacks. Fischer began that offensive, with TV ads painting Lunsford as an incompetent and even crooked head of Vencor — Lunsford split the company into Vencor and Ventas in 1998, after which Vencor declared bankruptcy (Lunsford’s campaign said he was no longer at the helm at that point). The company paid the government $104.5 million over allegations that Vencor offered inferior care to some of its patients and submitted false claims for federal reimbursement. Vencor did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement made after Lunsford left, and Lunsford has maintained he was not aware of the issues until they became public.
Lunsford’s campaign responded with its own ad, calling Fischer’s unfair and accusing his camp of mishandling facts.
Fischer, who has never run for public office and has pitched himself as impervious to the character attacks Democrats expect from McConnell, refers to these as “truth ads,” and said they do not contravene the message on his website that tags him as a “positive person” and his campaign respectful and full of integrity. During a recent sit-down interview, Fischer said Lunsford’s past is simply part of the debate.
But party insiders disagree. On May 1, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Crit Luallen sent a letter to Fischer asking his campaign to take a more respectful tone and “remove your personal attack ad from the air immediately.” Fischer, the only one of the seven Democrats who didn’t sign an Oath of Honorable Campaigning for the primary, refused. More than 140 people have also signed an online petition calling for Fischer to remove the ads.
In a sit-down interview last week, Lunsford said he thought the negative advertising would only hurt Fischer, because people are sick of negative campaigning.
Ultimately, getting Lunsford’s baggage into the open in the primary may only weaken the effect if McConnell trots it out in the fall.
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