Wednesday, May 21, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A millionaire businessman who grew up on a tobacco farm captured Kentucky’s Democratic Senate nomination yesterday, winning a chance to challenge Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the powerful four-term incumbent with a big campaign bankroll.

Across the country in Oregon, Democrats selected a challenger to try to unseat two-term Sen. Gordon H. Smith, the sole Republican senator on the West Coast. They were choosing between the state House speaker and an activist who spoofs the fact that he has a metal hook for a hand.

In Kentucky, Bruce Lunsford handily defeated another businessman, Greg Fischer, and five other Democrats. With 91 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Lunsford had 51 percent, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Fischer. Both men put some of their personal fortunes into their campaigns.

Mr. McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, easily defeated his sole opponent in the Republican primary, little-known truck driver Daniel Essek.

Despite the lack of a serious primary challenge, Mr. McConnell began airing TV ads last fall touting his leadership post and his ability to deliver assistance for medical research, tobacco farmers and sick nuclear-plant workers.

Mr. Lunsford sounded undaunted at the prospect of taking on Mr. McConnell, who raised more than $12 million in campaign cash through March.

“People ask me, Are you ready for McConnell?” Mr. Lunsford said recently. “My question is, is he ready for me? Because he hasn’t had much in the way of tough races, and this is going to be a race where he’s going to be held accountable.”

Mr. Lunsford touted his humble roots growing up on a Kentucky tobacco farm and working on a road crew to help put him through college. But he also has a jet-set lifestyle as a partner in a movie-production company.

Mr. Lunsford ran twice for governor but never won the Democratic primary. In 2003, he dropped out days before the primary, then later endorsed Republican Ernie Fletcher. Mr. Lunsford now apologizes to Democrats, calling it a mistake.

Mr. Fischer, a political newcomer, made a fortune partly by co-inventing an ice and beverage dispenser now commonplace in restaurants. He is also chief executive of a company that makes spectator seating for sports venues.

Elsewhere in Kentucky, Republican Anne Northup beat three primary opponents to set up a rematch against Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who ousted the former five-term congresswoman two years ago in the Louisville-area 3rd District.

In Oregon, Democrats tried to tie Mr. Smith to the unpopular President Bush. Mr. Smith, first elected to the Senate in 1996, is the only Republican holding statewide office in Oregon, which has voted more Democratic in recent elections. However, Sen. John Kerry won in 2004 with just 51.4 percent of the presidential vote.

House Speaker Jeff Merkley is the establishment candidate. He was recruited by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to run against Mr. Smith, who has pledged to raise $10 million or more for his re-election.

The other Democratic contender is Steve Novick, a fiery political activist who has gained lots of traction with lighthearted campaign videos that poke fun at the prosthesis he uses for a left hand, the result of birth defects.

In the Senate race, Mr. Merkley was viewed as an early front-runner because of his fundraising edge and endorsements from key Democrats and labor groups. But recent polls suggest that Mr. Novick has made it a tight race that could go either way in the primary.

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