Democrats Bullish on Ky.

Tuesday Special Could Give House Hopes a Spark

Posted February 11, 2004 at 6:42pm

With just five days left in the special election in Kentucky’s 6th district, House Democratic leaders and party strategists are beginning to paint the race as a potential pivot point in their long-shot battle for House control.

“This race is about the mood of the country,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “It is directly tied to the loss of credibility this president has on so many issues.”

“Not only does the president not have any coattails, he may well be a negative” for GOP candidates, Hoyer added.

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti took issue with Hoyer’s contention.

“This is an election between [GOP state Sen.] Alice Forgy Kerr and [former Democratic state Attorney General] Ben Chandler,” said Forti. “President Bush is not part of this campaign.”

Democrats’ increased optimism comes as party strategists on both sides acknowledge internal polling shows Chandler leading Kerr as the campaign heads into its final weekend.

To this point, Democrats have largely stayed mum on the potential effects of a Chandler victory, perhaps in an effort to keep expectations low after their disappointing six-seat loss in the 2002 elections.

That setback — coupled with the January party switch of Texas Rep. Ralph Hall (R) — gave Republicans a 13-seat majority in the House, the same margin they held after the landslide 1994 elections.

But, in the past few months, Democrats have begun to believe that a fortuitous sequence of events — headlined by stronger- than-expected party fundraising, competitive special elections in Kentucky, South Dakota and potentially Louisiana, as well as the emergence of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) as a potentially strong presidential nominee — have provided them with their first real signs of life in their campaign for House control.

“Democrats are benefiting from a little tradewind in terms of taking on Bush,” said David Dixon, a Democratic media consultant and former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “A Kentucky win could be part of a confluence of things that could be a good kickoff for the DCCC.”

DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards called the Kentucky race “very important for us not only in the House but nationally.”

Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), said that if Chandler wins “it will show momentum is on our side.”

Without doubt, the first step in any potential momentum-building effort by Democrats would be a Chandler win on Tuesday.

Chandler, his party’s nominee for governor in 2003, has led the race from its onset thanks in large part to name identification built from his unsuccessful gubernatorial race.

Benefiting from significant largess from the Republican Conference, Kerr took to the airwaves the day after Christmas in an attempt to rectify her name ID deficit.

She cast the race as a referendum on President Bush, running commercials that showed the two walking together outside of the White House while a narrator intoned that Kerr was “cut from the same cloth” as Bush.

The president, however, decided not to make a personal campaign visit on behalf of Kerr, and since that time her campaign has chosen to de-emphasize her ties to Bush.

(Republicans note that President Bush has never campaigned in a House special election, including Rep. Randy Forbes’ (R-Va.) victory in 2001 that gained a seat for his party.)

The impact of a Democratic win largely depends on the partisan stripes of the individual being asked.

To Democratic media consultant and 2002 DCCC Executive Director Howard Wolfson, his party is fighting “an uphill battle in Kentucky based on demographics and the landscape” and so “if we win it would be a big deal.”

To Forti, a Chandler win in what Republicans believe is a Democratic-leaning district would mean little.

“On the off chance that Democrats win Kentucky 6, the House will be back to where it was after the last election with the Ralph Hall switch,” said Forti. He added that Democrats have only 18 challenger candidates with more than $10,000 in the bank, making the chances of a national wave “slim to none.”

Both sides have legitimate arguments as to the district’s partisan bent.

President Bush would have won 55 percent there in 2000 and Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) held the seat from 1998 until late last year, when he resigned to take over the governorship.

But, Democrats hold a significant registration edge over Republicans.

As of Jan. 16 there were 265,713 Democrats, 144,200 Republicans and 32,018 nonaffiliated voters in the 6th, according to the Kentucky secretary of state’s office.

And, Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) held the seat from 1992 to 1998, when he vacated it to run unsuccessfully for the Senate.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang called the district a “fair fight.”

A Chandler win “shows that [nationally] the 2004 elections are shaping up to be a very competitive electoral environment,” Yang added.

Members on both sides of the aisle are pulling out all the stops to win in Kentucky.

Forti said that GOP Members have given $288,000 either directly from their campaign committees or leadership PACs to Kerr.

In addition, both Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), chairman of the Elected Leadership, and Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) will be campaigning for Kerr this weekend.

One-hundred-twenty-three Democratic Members gave $192,000 to Chandler; Hoyer as well as Reps. John Lewis (Ga.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) have visited the district in recent days.