Blame (or thank) Bunning for Mongiardo's rise to prominence
Daniel Mongiardo owes Jim Bunning a great big "thank you."
Conversely, Kentucky Republicans owe Sen. Bunning a beanball upside the head.
For if not for Bunning's horrible re-election campaign in 2004, Mongiardo would simply be another obscure local politician instead of the lieutenant-governor elect.
When Mongiardo first signed on to run against Bunning in the 2004 race for U.S. Senate, many thought he'd suffer the same fate as the last eastern Kentucky resident who dared take on an incumbent Republican. Mitch McConnell humiliated Lois Combs Weinberg in 2002, and the Knott County resident could claim to be Gov. Bert T. Combs' daughter. Rumors were that even her stepmother, Judge Sara Walter Combs, wasn't even supporting her.
Mongiardo wasn't even as well-known as Weinberg. He was some doctor from somewhere in the mountains. (Yes, we know that he is from Hazard, but most Kentuckians west of I-75 don't know Hazard from Harlan from Pikeville from Paintsville. They just know that "it's up there in the hills somewhere" and probably couldn't find Perry County on a map.)
The general thinking was that Bunning would annihilate Mongiardo by a bigger margin than McConnell had dispatched Weinberg two years prior.
But when Bunning started saying some outlandish and bizarre things on the campaign trail, things changed. He made a number of outrageous statements, most notably one comment about Mongiardo's physical appearance. He said that Dr. Dan, a descendant of Italian immigrants to an area of eastern Kentucky that has a surprising number of immigrant families, looked like the dead sons of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Saddam's two sons had recently been killed when Bunning said that.
Republicans were aghast, Democrats were outraged. The race began tightening. What should have been an easy victory for Bunning turned worrisome. He made a few other statements that got people to wondering if he had dementia, was going senile, or was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. People actually started analyzing his physical appearance for signs that he was losing his mind.
It took a last-minute campaign push from Kentucky's big-name Republicans to push Bunning over the top. And even that was not without controversy. When results came in on election night, they showed that many who voted for President Bush crossed over to vote for Dr. Dan. Bunning was trailing until returns came in from the western part of the state, where they are the farthest geographically removed from Hazard, and those returns pushed him over the top. However, because Mongiardo came so close, he quickly began being hailed as the rising star in the Kentucky Democratic Party. Many expected him to run for governor before he settled in as Steve Beshear's running mate. And even then, he was put on the ticket more for geographical balance and to counter fellow mountaineer Greg Stumbo's place on Steve Lunsford's ticket than any star potential he may have had.
Mongiardo didn't earn the "rising star" tag on his own. He had nothing to do with his unexpected finish in the '04 Senate election. That had everything to do with Bunning's boo-boos.
So, while Mongiardo is having his Thanksgiving turkey tomorrow, and he gives thanks for his blessings, he shouldn't stop at, "and Lord, thank you for women half my age. I'm sure I'll find another one to replace my ex-fiance." He should be thankful that Bunning's bizarre series of campaign gaffes inflated his value among Democrat activists and voters.
And Republicans ought to be furious at the junior senator for turning an otherwise obscure and unknown state senator into someone who might possibly be a future governor.