National leaders call local political shots

What a difference a year makes for Bruce Lunsford. In March 2007, amid the Democratic primary for governor, key unions in Kentucky not only wrote off the possibility of backing Lunsford, some openly campaigned against him. Many in organized labor remained steamed over Lunsford's 2003 run for governor, in which he dropped out of the Democratic primary and later backed Republican Ernie Fletcher in the general election.

But all appears to be forgotten, or at least disregarded, now that Lunsford is the best-known Democrat in the U.S. Senate race and has the blessing of the Washington Democratic establishment. After all, at stake in this primary is the chance to take on U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, which automatically makes it a nationally watched race.

So last weekend, the Kentucky AFL-CIO voted to endorse Lunsford in the Democratic primary, which features six other candidates.

And Thursday, the Kentucky branch of the United Mine Workers of America, another group unhappy with Lunsford last year, is expected to announce it also will back him.

"I think everyone's overall objective here is to beat Mitch McConnell," said Steve Earle, legislative field director for the mine workers union. "I think Bruce Lunsford is the man to do that."

So why the about-face?

First, the message from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, was unmistakable: Lunsford is their guy. Schumer and the national AFL-CIO, therefore, had a keen interest in Kentucky's labor unions getting behind him, and they made sure to say so, said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO.

"There may have been a phone call or two," he said.

Second, the unions made the same political calculations that Schumer already has. Lunsford's vast personal wealth can help catch up to McConnell's $10 million fund-raising head start, and his millions of dollars' worth of TV ads run in two previous statewide races made his name familiar to voters.

Londrigan said those qualities became more important because Lunsford and his chief Democratic rival, Louisville businessman Greg Fischer, espoused similar views.

"Let's be honest, there's not a whole lot of difference in how they stood on our working-family issues," he said. "But on balance, we measured Bruce to be a candidate that had more capability to challenge Mitch -- money, name recognition, the support he's going to receive from the ... big players in D.C., the DSCC."

Finally, Lunsford has worked to atone for what the unions and many Democratic activists considered his sins, and he gave them the "right" answers on key questions.

Earle, who ended up in a squabble last year with Lunsford's running mate in his gubernatorial bid, Greg Stumbo, said he and several other UMWA officials had a face-to-face chat with Lunsford two weeks ago. Apologies were made and hatchets were buried, Earle said.

"Quite frankly, I was impressed with him -- his commitment, his vision for Kentucky, his sincerity," Earle said. "We didn't spare asking him the tough questions. ... He was right on every issue."

For instance, Lunsford said he has concerns with NAFTA and supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure pending in Congress that addresses the formation of unions.

Lunsford said in an interview that labor's opposition to him last year "was really about taking me to the woodshed" for backing Fletcher. And after staying positive in the 2007 governors' race against Steve Beshear, his standing with Democrats improved.

Lunsford also said he doesn't underestimate the boost in campaign foot soldiers he'll get from the thousands of members of the AFL-CIO and another labor coalition that endorsed him, Change to Win.

"I felt as part of building our franchise to win, we really needed them," he said.

Fischer's campaign shrugged off the unions' backing his rival, saying that it reinforces a perception that Lunsford is a candidate of convenience.

"We have to have a sharp contrast, and Bruce Lunsford is not that: someone who's not obligated or indebted to the Washington establishment," said Kim Geveden, Fischer's campaign consultant.

McConnell also has taken notice.

His e-mail to supporters asking them to donate money last week prominently mentioned the latest developments in the Democratic primary.

"Your gift is even more important now that Big Labor and the National Democrats are jumping in to Kentucky's business," McConnell's message said.

Lunsford, meanwhile, won't say when he plans to launch his advertising phase, claiming that his strategists are keeping that a secret.

"They've refused to let me know for fear I'll answer the question," he said with a laugh. He said to expect "much more activity" in April, and he added that his plan won't hinge on what other Democrats do in the meantime.

"I didn't get in this race to just win the primary, I got in this race to win the seat," he said. "I do believe this is the second-biggest race in the country" after the contest for the White House.


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