POLITICS
04/11/2013 07:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2013

Kentucky Democrats Are Still Playing Mitch McConnell's Game

WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Democrats, you need to get your act together. Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. And right now you're all getting sucked into the void.

In the absence of a serious candidate to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014, flummoxed Democrats in Kentucky are left to clean up after the juvenile tactics of the dudes who allegedly eavesdropped on a McConnell reelection strategy meeting.

The question of the day Thursday was not -- as it should have been -- the cold-bloodedness of McConnell's politics, but rather who knew what when about what the renegade Progress Kentucky guys might have been up to and about the tape of the February meeting.

For the record, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville, told The Huffington Post that he had not heard about the tape until Mother Jones published a story on it. Other Democrats in Louisville told us the same thing. But that shouldn't be the question.

This is a case of political malpractice on the part of state and national Democrats. McConnell is a leading symbol of the GOP and of what Democrats loathe about the GOP. And he is, on paper, the most vulnerable Senate incumbent.

In his fifth term now, McConnell has an approval rating in Kentucky of 36 percent. Silent but sullen, most of his own party doesn't really like him. The state's Democrats, who still control the governorship and the lower house, positively despise the man.

Yet out of a toxic mix of fear, self-interest and timidity, no credible candidate has stepped forward to challenge him.

After telling some key Kentuckians that she had decided to do so, actress-activist Ashley Judd changed her mind and renounced the race. Others have claimed they are interested, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes even met with former President Bill Clinton to talk about it.

But the heavy hitters are waiting for the governor's race in 2015, and Kentucky Democrats are plagued by family and political feuds that make "Jersey Shore" look tame.

The popular Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, won't run, but he and the Lundergan family have a feud that goes back eons -- Grimes' father is former Kentucky Democratic chairman Jerry Lundergan -- so Beshear won't back Alison.

Two attractive contenders, state Attorney General Jack Conway and former Auditor Crit Luallen, want to run for governor. And Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, the former mayor of Louisville, is popular but unsure of his statewide appeal.

The man who once could impose order and unity -- and command a Democratic candidate to step forward -- is former Sen. Wendell Ford. He is a spry, very much engaged 88-year-old and universally beloved by Kentucky Democrats, but he is no longer in the position to run the party he once embodied.

I was a reporter in Kentucky in the Pleistocene epoch (1970s), when Democratic mastodons roamed the bluegrass and imposed their will on the political landscape. They would fight from time to time -- gigantic, ferocious fights that would define blood feuds for a generation. But they all agreed on certain things: the need for the federal government to spend money on the poor and the farmers; the need to protect coal, tobacco, corn, hogs and barge operators; the dominant position of the coal companies; and the role of political patronage in everything that moved.

It was a form of barely enlightened populist feudalism, but it worked, sort of -- especially for the Democratic Party there.

Nearly 30 years ago, the former county judge of Jefferson County -- a clerkish Republican from Alabama named McConnell -- busted up this ecosystem.

He didn't do it to reform the way things worked. He did it to make the old Kentucky Democratic Party system his own, using conservative rhetoric in Washington and assiduous buck raking to claw federal money back to the state.

That is the way it's been for decades, and it seems the way it will remain, unless someone -- other than the guys from Progress Kentucky -- step forward to take him on.

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