Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Strange People

While there’s been a lot of ink and electrons spent on the presidential election, a couple of races for the U.S. Senate are getting just plain weird.

It’s no secret in Kentucky that Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican who was expected to coast to reelection on Nov. 2, has been acting strange. Over the past few months, Bunning has angrily pushed away reporters, exchanged testy words with a questioner at a Rotary Club and stuck to brief, heavily scripted remarks at campaign events, delivered in a halting monotone. The former major league baseball star now travels the Bluegrass State with a special police escort, at taxpayer expense. His explanation? Al-Qaida may be out to get him.

More substantively, the incumbent would agree to only one debate with his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo. And the rules Bunning negotiated were bizarrely rigid: The encounter could not be live; the taping has to occur in the afternoon, not the evening; no audience could be present in the studio; and, under threat of legal action, Mongiardo could not use any sound clips or video of Bunning’s debate performance in campaign advertisements.

This apparent fear of the spontaneous has spurred rumors in Kentucky that Bunning, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is suffering from some sort of dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s. Bunning has declined to release his medical records. But until now, there was nothing hard to suggest that the one-term Republican senator was anything but a crotchety, occasionally confused, or arrogant old man.

On Monday, however, Bunning — who turns 73 this month — abruptly retreated behind yet another barrier, in an action so inexplicable that it appears likely to bring the rumors about his health, now referred to obliquely in Kentucky news reports, into open discussion. It may also mark a turning point in a race that, against all expectations, has been tightening recently.

Saying falsely that he was needed in Washington this week for Senate votes, Bunning tore up his own carefully crafted debate agreement and refused to return to Kentucky on Monday for his one scheduled debate with Mongiardo. It was to have taken place at 2:30 p.m. Monday in the Lexington, Ky., studio of WKYT-TV. Instead, Bunning insisted on “debating” via satellite from the womblike conditions of the Republican National Committee headquarters studio in Washington.

The senator refused to allow a member of the Kentucky media to be present at the RNC studio to monitor whether Bunning was receiving assistance with his answers, according to Mongiardo campaign manager Kim Geveden and WKYT news director Jim Ogle. And Bunning refused to engage reporters via satellite in a previously agreed upon post-debate news conference, insisting instead that his 15 minutes of answering questions occur by telephone, without accompanying video footage.


All this has translated into momentum for Bunning’s younger and more energetic challenger. Sensing new opportunity, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last week gave the Mongiardo campaign a much-needed infusion of cash. The amount was described as in the “tens of thousands” of dollars, but it was less than the $466,000 that federal rules allow the national party to pump into a Kentucky Senate race, a committee spokeswoman told reporters.

Meantime, a new Survey USA poll conducted Oct. 6-8 showed that Bunning’s once commanding lead has been cut in half, to 11 points. The Mongiardo campaign’s private polling shows the race even closer, to an eight-point difference. Then on Saturday came the news that Bunning would not appear with Mongiardo at the Lexington debate.


This incident will surely dog Bunning in the last three weeks of the campaign. In his closing and opening statements, the senator’s eyes appeared to be scanning text, prompting reporters to ask in the post-debate news conference whether he was using a teleprompter. Bunning declined to answer, saying only that he has stuck to the rules, apparently referring to the original agreement that he himself violated by appearing from Washington. That agreement said the candidates could use “notes” during the debate.

Kentucky’s Democrats are unlikely to let the issue lie. “He’s sure using every flimsy excuse to keep away from Kentucky voters,” said Garmer, the state Democratic Party chairman. Does he think Bunning is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition? “Well, it is certainly the obvious question to ask,” Garmer said.[Salon.com]

Meanwhile in Oklahoma the battle between Rep. Brad Carson (D) and former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) has shifted from a clash between the moderate Democrat and the conservative Republican to a weird trip of paranoia against lesbians.

The Republican Senate candidate in Oklahoma warns of “rampant” lesbianism in some schools in the state in a tape released Monday by his Democratic opponent.

The remark by Republican Tom Coburn drew a skeptical response from state educators.

“I don’t believe that,” said Keith Ballard, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. He said the group’s attorneys “haven’t said anything to me about that.”

In the tape released by the campaign of Brad Carson, the Democratic candidate, Coburn says a campaign worker from Coalgate told him that “lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that’s happened to us?”

Joe McCulley, school superintendent in Coalgate, chuckled when asked about Coburn’s remark.

“He knows something I don’t know. We have not identified anything like that. We have not had to deal with any issues on that subject — ever,” McCulley said.

The comment came at a town hall meeting in Hugo on Aug. 31 and was taped by a Democratic campaign worker.

John Hart, spokesman for Coburn, said the remark was made during a broader discussion about the challenges parents face in society “where our kids are getting mixed messages about sexuality.”

Hart would not say that Coburn misspoke. “I wasn’t there,” he said.

Of the educators’ skepticism, Hart said: “If that’s what they say, I guess we will have to take their word for it.”

Coburn and Carson are vying for the post that Republican Don Nickles is leaving after 24 years. The race could be pivotal in the battle for control of the Senate. [Salon/AP]

If the Democrats can pull off Kentucky and Oklahoma, they have a very good chance of taking over the Senate. That would make it interesting for a Bush second term, effectively ending the Republicans’ hold on the legislative branch, and it would ensure that any right-wing nut job nominated for a Supreme Court vacancy is Borked. That makes these races all that more important.