Kentucky Primary Avoiding Nastiness

Posted May 7, 2008 at 6:15pm

While it wasn’t expected to be anything on the level of Clinton vs. Obama, the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s 2nd Congressional district looked like it would be pretty wild.

Over the winter, there were charges of broken promises, backroom dealings, calls to the governor’s mansion and even a last-minute filing.

But with less than two weeks to go before voters head to the polls to pick between state Sen. David Boswell (D) and Daviess County Judge/Executive Reid Haire (D), the race has been rather, well, civil.

To date, there haven’t been any real fireworks, “gotcha” moments, or even a negative television ad to get the electorate riled up. Instead, it’s been a rather quiet contest between two candidates who generally share the same views on most issues except, notably, the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq (Boswell is against setting a timetable for withdrawal; Haire wants the troops home within two years).

But in a district where Democratic officials see opportunity this fall, the party is just fine with keeping the primary as positive as possible.

“I think it’s a very winnable race for the Democrats,” Kentucky Democratic Party Communications Director Thom Karmik said of the race to replace Rep. Ron Lewis (R). “There’s no need for Democratic candidates to run nasty races against each other because we’re going to face that from Republicans come this fall. It behooves us to have a strong, unified Democratic Party going into these elections.”

The mostly rural 2nd district is staunchly conservative, and Lewis never had much trouble winning re-election during his eight terms. In 2004, the district voted for President Bush by an almost 2-1 margin.

But Lewis’ exit from his seat hasn’t been graceful.

After denying retirement rumors late last year, Lewis’ 11th-hour decision to withdraw from the race came as a surprise to both parties. But even more surprising was the unexpected candidacy of Lewis’ chief of staff, Daniel London (R), who filed for the race just before the state deadline at exactly the same time that Lewis withdrew his papers.

But Lewis’ attempt to hand over his seat to London backfired. With very little notice, the National Republican Congressional Committee recruited state Sen. Brett Guthrie into the race. And after Guthrie lined up support from top GOP leaders, London dropped out. Lewis also issued an apology to his constituents for try ing to fix the GOP contest.

All the antics on the GOP side had Democrats optimistic that a conservative candidate, the kind who opposes abortion rights and favors gun rights (as Boswell and Haire do), could take advantage of the sudden opportunity.

Democrats say both men have strong credentials.

Haire has served as the chief executive of Daviess County, which includes the Congressional district’s biggest city, Owensboro, since 1999.

Boswell, an 18-year veteran of the state Senate, also has served as state agricultural commissioner and has been known to have had his eye on the Congressional seat for some time.

But early on, it looked like Boswell and Haire might tear each other apart before they even got to Guthrie.

Back in the fall, when it became known that both men were interested in the seat, they hinted that they might be able to sit down with party officials to clear the field for one or the other.

But as the Jan. 29 filing deadline approached and neither man would budge, both Haire and Boswell put in calls to the governor’s mansion to see if the newly elected Gov. Steve Beshear (D) could intervene on their behalf.

Boswell has since claimed that he and Haire came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” that essentially said whoever polled worse against Lewis (who was still expected to be running for re-election at the time) would bow out of the race. Boswell had an advantage in state party polling and filed for the race on Jan. 16.

But Haire said he never agreed to such a deal. Regardless, the dynamics of the race changed when Lewis decided not to run and Haire filed on the same day that Lewis withdrew.

Despite all that intrigue, the primary did not get nasty in the months that followed.

“Because of the tensions between the two guys before this started, you would have thought this was going to be a real barn-burner with a lot of nastiness back and forth,” one Kentucky Democratic source said Wednesday. “These were two guys who aren’t the greatest of friends, to put it mildly.”

Haire said Wednesday that he doesn’t see any sense in getting into personal attacks in this campaign.

“From my perspective, it needs to be a positive race,” he said.

Kentucky insiders say Boswell probably has higher name identification due to his long service in the legislature. But as of March 31, Haire was winning the money battle.

According to Federal Election Commission reports, at the end of the first quarter Haire had raised more than $200,000 and reported $188,000 in cash on hand. Boswell had raised just $34,000 and had about $32,000 in cash on hand.

Both men were outpaced by Guthrie, who had raised more than $402,000 since entering the race and reported $354,000 in cash on hand.

Haire used his cash lead to begin running ads that promote his accomplishments in Daviess County. Those ads are airing in the Bowling Green and Louisville media markets. Haire said the March FEC reports show that he has the ability to raise the resources necessary to take on Guthrie in November.

Boswell said Wednesday that just looking at fundraising doesn’t give the whole picture.

“The first three months of this year I spent in the legislative session, I helped write one of the toughest legislative ethics laws in the country,” Boswell said. During that time, “I probably could have asked lobbyists and other interests for money, but I just didn’t think that was a proper thing to do because I was in Frankfort voting for issues of their concern.”

Boswell said that he started raising money aggressively in April and since then has brought in more than $100,000 from individual donors and at fundraisers around the district.

The Kentucky Democratic source said Wednesday that the quiet nature of the primary so far probably has a lot to do with Boswell choosing to keep a low profile, noting that perhaps Boswell is relying on his name identification in the district. But as the media circus that has so far followed Democratic presidential primary races across the country begins to focus on Kentucky, Boswell may chose to step up his presence.

“The last couple weeks, should [Boswell] really get engaged … we might see a lot of that back and forth,” the source said.

For his part, Boswell said Wednesday that he doesn’t have too much to quarrel with Haire about.

“If I do take issue at all with my opponent, it’s the fact that while I was in Frankfort adhering to a very strict legislative ethics code as a state Senator, he was taking time away from his duties at the court house and spending four and five hours a day on the phone, basically at the expense of the taxpayers, dialing for dollars,” Boswell said.

Haire replied that Republicans are surely working night and day to raise resources for this race, and Democrats need to work just as hard.

“I think the county business has been taken care of and has not suffered at all,” Haire said. As for Boswell’s comments, “I think that is somewhat of a smoke screen.”

Those aren’t exactly fighting words, but it’s about as close as it comes in the 2nd district these days.