McConnell's Senate campaign nearly $2 million in debt

WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign committee appears nearly $2 million in debt and took out loans to aid his hotly contested re-election bid, according to recently released campaign finance records.

The loans were taken out as Congress debated the merits of bailing out the country's struggling financial sector to help ease a nationwide credit freeze, according to campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission. McConnell was integral to helping broker a $700 billion bailout of foundering Wall Street companies -- a measure the Bush administration said was necessary to shore up an ailing economy but was unpopular with many voters.

Campaign spokesman Scott Jennings declined to comment.

The loans to McConnell's campaign included a $1.2 million loan and a $600,000 line of credit from BB&T in late October, a period when Democratic challenger and Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pumped millions of dollars into ramped-up efforts to wrest the seat from the senior Kentucky senator.

As the race tightened in the final weeks of the campaign, McConnell increased the number of television commercials to help beat back his Democratic challenger's bump in the polls.

According to FEC records, McConnell spent $19.2 million -- roughly $2 million more than the campaign funds he netted during the election cycle. Lunsford's most recent campaign records are not yet available, according to the FEC database.

The Senate race was the most expensive in Kentucky history and, at more than $27 million, ranked No. 2 in 2008 behind the ongoing Minnesota contest as the nation's most expensive Senate race, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Money played a critical role early on in the Kentucky race.

Democratic leadership, well aware of McConnell's record as a fundraising titan, considered Lunsford a well-heeled pick who could combat that advantage.

Though Lunsford initially filed papers with the FEC indicating that he didn't intend to spend his own money, Lunsford became the first Kentucky candidate ever to trigger the millionaire's amendment when he pumped more than $1 million of his own money into his Senate bid.

As of Oct. 15, Lunsford raised $7.7 million in the Kentucky race -- much of that in personal loans to his campaign.

Political experts worry that the trend of increasingly expensive campaigns and opting out of public financing might discourage qualified candidates who can't raise large sums to run for public office and could lead to an increase in uncomfortable and, at times, unethical alliances between donors and candidates.

"Increasingly, a candidate's viability becomes defined by their ability to raise funds, not their record on the floor," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky told the Herald Leader last month.