The Nastiest Primary You Haven’t Been Watching

Tucked safely out of national view behind the white-hot Senate primaries in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and, uh, Kentucky is a nasty fight to the finish between the Democrats vying to run for the retiring Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-KY) seat. The race pits two of top state officials — Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway — who are running neck-and-neck in the homestretch. That’s generally the perfect environment for a campaign to go negative, and this one has been no exception.

In a nutshell, Mongiardo says his past experience as a Senate Democratic nominee (he narrowly lost to Bunning in ’04) gives him the best chance to flip the seat while Conway says that Mongiardo’s got baggage that would end the Democratic chances to win before they got started.

Conway is the progressive choice. Liberals herald, among other things, his decision to fight state Republicans who wanted him to sue the federal government over health care reform. Mongiardo, they say, is too conservative to earn the support of the left.The last poll of the primary, conducted last week, showed Mongiardo leading the four-candidate Democratic ballot with 39% of the vote. Conway was an extremely close second, drawing 36%. The other candidates weren’t a factor, making the race a dead heat.

Conway’s been consistently ahead in the money fight, outraising Mongiardo by significant margins throughout the race. As the Cook Report (sub. req.) notes, that’s left him with a serious advantage in the final weeks of campaigning:

As of result of Mongiardo’s financial disadvantage, he has aired mostly 15-second television spots over the past three weeks, leaving Conway on the air with substantially more gross rating points.

What has Conway done with that big TV advantage? Attacked Mongiardo over and over on ethics. Thanks to a dinner at a New York steakhouse Mongiardo charged to the state while traveling on official business with his wife, a $7.50 creme brulee has become an issue, with Conway suggesting Mongiardo is living large on the taxpayer dime. Here’s a Conway ad to give you an impression of how that storyline is playing out.

Mongiardo, meanwhile, has said that Conway is far from squeaky-clean, attacking him for taking money from utility companies. Check out how Mongiardo deftly crams defense agaisnt Conway’s ads and his return fire into this 15-second spot.

So, who wins tonight? The polls don’t give much insight into how the race will shakeout. Mongiardo, the story goes, has a more established ground organization thanks to his past run for Senate, but Conway has more money. Most say those two factors are a washout.

Whichever Democrat wins, it’s fair to say Republicans are not sweating it. And that’s why Democratic primary has stayed out of sight till now. Republicans — who appear set to nominate tea partier Rand Paul as their nominee tonight — point to polls showing both Democrats trailing GOP candidates badly in a hypothetical general election as evidence that the Democratic primary fight is essentially tilting and windmills.

The TPM Poll Average for a Paul-Conway general shows Paul ahead by a margin of 44.7-38.4. The TPM Poll Average for a Paul-Mongiardo race shows Paul ahead by a margin of 45.8-36.2.

But Paul is well to the Republican extreme, and Democrats say that gives them a shot — however small — and winning this year if Paul is the GOP nominee. So whomever wins the Democratic nomination tonight could end up getting a lot of the national attention that’s been lacking in the primary so far.