GOP Primary Exposes Divide In Lucas’ District

Posted July 25, 2003 at 6:04pm

Well before the primary to determine who will be the Republican candidate in Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, 2002 nominee Geoff Davis and attorney Kevin Murphy are engaged in a bitter war of words over the latter’s Republican bona fides.

The contest has echoes of 1998, when a Republican split helped the Democrats capture the northern Kentucky seat.

Murphy, an attorney from Erlanger, had raised $232,000 for the race at the end of June from 167 contributors, 46 of whom had given to Democratic candidates in past cycles, according to documents provided to Roll Call. Twenty-three had given specifically to the man Murphy and Davis are hoping to unseat in 2004: Rep. Ken Lucas (D).

Murphy has also been dogged by his support for the Congressman in 1998; he chaired “Republicans for Lucas” in that race and donated $250 to the Democrat. One Republican strategist went so far as to suggest that Lucas recruited Murphy to run “because he is scared of Geoff Davis.”

Murphy was nonchalant about the revelations concerning his campaign finances.

“In order to win the Congressional seat in the 4th district you have to attract Democrats,” Murphy explained. “The fact that Democrats are supporting me is a clear indication that I am the strongest candidate.”

Murphy added that one Democrat who had donated to him had recently hosted a $100,000 fundraiser for Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), the party’s 2003 gubernatorial nominee.

As for his past support for Lucas, Murphy said it was based on the 1998 Republican nominee for the seat, who he claimed was “ethically flawed.”

Justin Brasell, a spokesman for Davis, noted that “Ken Lucas and his pit bull in Washington, [Democratic political consultant] Bob Doyle, have been extremely excited about the fact Murphy is running. Those facts speak for themselves.”

The back and forth between Davis and Murphy highlights the importance Republicans place on this seat, which Lucas has held for three terms.

The lone Democrat in the Kentucky delegation, Lucas won the Republican-leaning seat in 1998 when then-Rep. Jim Bunning (R) vacated it for a successful Senate candidacy.

Lucas faced only a nominal primary challenge in 1998 while attorney Rick Robinson and state Sen. Gex Williams waged a brutal battle for the Republican nomination.

Robinson had the backing of Bunning and much of the business establishment, but Williams, with social conservatives aligned behind him, won the primary by 10 points.

In the general election, Lucas ran on his conservative credentials and the Williams campaign struggled after he admitted to inflating his resume. As a result, Lucas was able to peel off a number of moderate Republicans to beat Williams 53 percent to 47 percent.

In 2000, Republicans were unable to field a quality candidate and Lucas won a 10 point victory even as George W. Bush carried the district with 61 percent. Last cycle, Lucas outspent Davis, a first-time candidate, by more than $500,000 but won a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent victory.

Lucas’ three-term-limit pledge comes due in 2004, but he has announced that he will seek a fourth term. And his campaign is clearly gleeful about the budding Republican primary.

The early skirmishes “speak loudly to people in Washington that they have another 1998 on their hands,” said Doyle, Lucas’ consultant. “By the time they come out of that primary this race is going to lean dramatically to Ken Lucas.”

Doyle couldn’t resist a shot at Davis, who he said has run an “unremarkable” campaign thus far.

All three candidates, however, are raising impressive sums for a race that is likely to cost several million dollars for the eventual winner.

Lucas led the field with $263,000 raised from April 1 to June 30 and with $333,000 in his campaign coffers. He has received nearly $40,000 in contributions from fellow Members, a result of his participation in the Frontline Democrats joint fundraising committee for vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

Davis, a businessman, brought in $117,000 over the past three months, including donations from the leadership political action committees of National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) and Rep. Jerry Weller (Ill.). He had $260,000 left to spend.

Murphy showed a surprisingly strong $112,000 raised in the period, with $205,000 on hand.

Both Republicans had their own spin on the fundraising numbers.

Murphy maintained that because Davis has raised $60,000 in funds that can be spent only on the general election, the two candidates are actually at rough financial parity.

Under Federal Election Commission law, a candidate can accept $6,000 total for primary, runoff and general election races but may spend only $2,000 of it on each contest.

Davis’ allies noted that roughly half of Murphy’s take for the period — $55,000 — came from his own pocket.

At its root, the debate over the Democratic origins of Murphy’s money signals a larger ideological divide at work in the race.

“The reason we have lost this seat three times in a row is because Davis, like Williams, could not attract anyone from the business community,” said Murphy. “I am offering a message that is resonating with the business community.”

He added that Davis and Williams received almost identical vote totals in 2002 and 1998, respectively. Davis received 81,651 votes; Williams took 81,547 — a difference of just 104.

Brasell, Davis’ spokesman, responded that their campaign is actually spending very little time talking about Murphy.

“If Kevin Murphy is talking about Geoff Davis and Geoff Davis is talking about Geoff Davis, then Geoff Davis is going to get elected,” Brasell said.