McConnell and Patton: Did they have a secret deal in 1990s?
Did Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Gov. Paul Patton have a secret deal concerning the 1999 gubernatorial race and the 2002 U.S. Senate race?
Given McConnell's tougher-than-expected re-election campaign, and Patton's re-entry into the public spotlight through his recent appointment to the Council on Postsecondary Education, it might be time to revisit this subject, which was a matter of much discussion a decade ago.
Flash back to the late 1990s. Elected in 1995 in a tight race over Republican challenger Larry Forgy, Patton found himself the first governor in Kentucky's modern history able to succeed himself in office. Yet Patton was rumored to be after bigger and better things, namely a seat in the United States Senate.
Despite the power of the Kentucky Democrat machine being behind him in his re-election campaign, Patton was vulnerable on a couple of fronts. His push to remove the community colleges from the University of Kentucky system was highly unpopular across the state, and his proposal to gut the workers' compensation system had made him many enemies. Despite these vulnerabilities, and a deep-seated belief that he had lost the election in '95 only due to voter fraud, Forgy opted against another matchup with Patton. That left the GOP without an obvious legitimate challenger.
Patton, on the other hand, had two options for a Senate run. He could choose to run against McConnell in 2002, or against first-termer Jim Bunning two years later. The major problem with a race against Bunning was that if Patton won re-election to a second term in 1999, that term would expire in 2003 and he'd be out of office for a year before facing Bunning. If he chose to challenge McConnell, it would be during his second term as governor and he'd be able to use that office to his advantage.
Kentucky Republicans are used to having Senate seats; the political prize they covet in the state is the governorship. They had come oh-so-close with Forgy in 1995 and were thirsting to knock off Patton, whom they saw as beatable based on the two aforementioned policy matters. What they needed was enthusiastic support from the party's leaders, including McConnell, to find and field a formidable foe, especially since Forgy had ruled out another run.
But did McConnell have other ideas? Namely, preserving his own senate seat? No credible Republican gubernatorial challenger ever emerged in 1999, and the nomination went to a woefully outclassed Peppy Martin, who got absolutely no support from the state party or from high-ranking officials such as McConnell. Rank-and-file Republicans were left scratching their heads at why the party would basically give a free pass to the incumbent, whom they perceived as having some potentially fatal flaws.
At the time, a theory surfaced. It was widely speculated that McConnell and Patton had reached a deal. McConnell agreed not to recruit or back a legitimate GOP opponent for Patton, and in return Patton agreed not to run against McConnell for the Senate in 2002 and would delay his candidacy for two years until '04, when he would challenge Bunning.
Other Republicans pooh-poohed the idea. The implication was that if Patton didn't challenge McConnell, that left him free to run against Bunning in 2004. Those Republicans couldn't believe that McConnell would hang a fellow Republican like Bunning out to dry in such a manner.
Oh really now? McConnell's actions over the past three years prove he's more than capable of abandoning fellow Republicans, including some of his closest allies. A large number of Republicans still haven't forgotten how McConnell did nothing to help Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whom he'd enthusiastically supported in 2003, when Fletcher came under attack by Democrats bent on regaining power in state government.
And now some folks who aligned themselves with former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup's failed primary challenge to Fletcher last year are also expressing dissatisfaction with McConnell. They believe McConnell talked Northup into running against Fletcher in the 2007 Republican gubernatorial primary, then left her on her own and didn't provide support.
If McConnell did cut such a deal, turns out that it didn't do Bunning any harm. Patton's political career was subsequently derailed by a sex scandal, and Bunning stumbled to a victory in his 2004 re-election bid that turned Dan Mongiardo from a political lightweight into a credible politician with a future.
But McConnell's obviously alienated two factions within his own party. If Bruce Lunsford presents a serious challenge, McConnell will need committed Republican voters to support him. But if they are ambivalent to him, or outright hostile, based on his treatment of fellow Republicans, he may have more difficulty winning re-election than he expects. The Fletcherites are already mad at him, some to the point of threatening to sit out the Senate election. If he has Northupians angry, too, then he has problems in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-2.
Should McConnell lose to Lunsford, he can tie it directly to his own party's dissatisfaction with him for not expressing the proper amount of loyalty and support to other Republicans when they come under Democrat siege. And it would serve McConnell right.