Sen. Mitch McConnell's close backing of President Bush on immigration and the Iraq war is costing him support among Kentucky Republicans, and, according to some party members, hurting his chances for re-election next year.
He even could face a primary challenge from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy, who contends that Mr. McConnell's in-state problems are compounded by job losses to producers beyond America's borders.
The average Kentuckian feels we are giving away this country with both hands — jobs are going, essentially the primacy of the people who made this country great is going, and Mitch McConnell is lumped with the Washington types on this, Mr. Forgy said.
And the war in Iraq is less troublesome in Kentucky than in many other places, but it is not popular here, and Republican voters see Mitch's views as too close to the president's on the war, said Mr. Forgy, a Lexington lawyer.
It's a troublesome assessment for Mr. McConnell, who as minority leader has found himself having to defend unpopular Bush administration policies.
The immigration issue is trouble for everyone in central Kentucky, Republican state Sen. Tom Buford said. The Iraq war is always difficult for all incumbents, even if they support pulling the troops out. It is a no-win situation when elections are at risk.
Mr. McConnell registered a 48 percent approval rating last month in a SurveyUSA poll.
A county party chairman who supports Mr. McConnell but asked not to be identified said Mr. McConnell's re-election next year is uncertain — despite the Capitol Hill clout he brings Kentucky — unless he shows the folks back home he understands their distrust of Washington on enforcing immigration laws.
The chairman said he has tried to tell Mr. McConnell that he needs to assure the party's base that he opposes Mr. Bush's immigration bill.
The Kentucky Republican Party, torn by the immigration issue, was further fractured when critics claimed Mr. McConnell had acted behind the scenes to back an ultimately unsuccessful primary challenge by former Rep. Anne Northup against Gov. Ernie Fletcher earlier this year. The Fletcher faction of the state Republican Party is backing the draft Forgy campaign.
Despite his role as Republican leader in the Senate, Mr. McConnell withdrew himself from much of the fight among fellow Republican senators over the Bush-backed immigration bill supported by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Arizona's Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, among others. Besides border-enforcement provisions, the bill provided a path to citizenship for illegal aliens and a new worker program for foreign workers.
Constituent pressure began to peel other Senate Republicans from their support of the bill, and Mr. McConnell wound up voting against it, though he voted for a similar bill last year.
His vote against the bill at the end showed his thinking and that he knew the bill was not going to be good policy for Kentucky or the country, said Fred Karem, a Lexington businessman who went to law school with Mr. McConnell.
Mr. Karem said it's impossible for him to imagine Mr. McConnell facing re-election difficulty. Shortly into his new term after he is re-elected next year, Mitch will be the longest-serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history. He has been the heart and soul and leader of the Republican Party in this state, he said.
Republican leaders in the state agree that immigration is a big issue with the party's core voters, but some say it won't hurt Mr. McConnell.
I don't know anyone who is more in touch with his constituency than Mitch McConnell, said Jack Richardson of Louisville, party chairman in Jefferson County, the state's most populous county and home to Mr. McConnell.
Mr. McConnell recently acknowledged grass-roots discontent over immigration.
During the immigration debate, and ever since, countless well-informed Americans spoke up about the need to enforce our borders and our laws, he said. Their voice was heard in the Capitol and the White House. The billions we've added to the homeland security funding bill for border security and interior enforcement, and the administration's enhanced commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration are necessary steps toward securing our nation — and living up to the expectations of our constituents.
Another McConnell supporter, Bourbon County Chairman Andre Regard, said, I would be surprised if McConnell faces a challenge because of immigration. I think we should give everyone amnesty and start over.
Other party leaders in the state privately made it clear that supporting Mr. McConnell is important because of the benefits he brings Kentucky through his seniority — he is completing his fourth term — and as the Republican leader in the Senate.
Ballard County party Chairman Charley Martin said: I know immigration is a very emotional issue with Republicans, but it's not the fundamental issue. The party wants to continue the conservative views of Senator McConnell — the views he stood for through the years.
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