Kentucky Rematch Is Looking Like a Repeat

Posted October 29, 2008 at 4:20pm

Anne Northup narrowly defeated a freshman Democrat in 1996 to win her first term in Congress, but the onetime Republican Member likely won’t repeat history this year in her attempt to oust first-term Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

A political neophyte in 2006, Yarmuth beat Northup, a five-term Member, in the competitive 3rd district by tying the Republican to the unpopular Bush administration. Yarmuth is going back to the basics in his re-election campaign, trying to tie Northup to President Bush yet again.

“It’s not something we have to work hard to do. A vote for Anne Northup is a vote for two more years of Bush policies,” Yarmuth campaign spokesman Christopher Hartman said.

Although Republicans initially had high hopes for the rematch, Yarmuth’s message seems to be working. He has held a consistent lead, with polls indicating he could win by a larger margin than his 51 percent to 48 percent victory in 2006.

A perennial Democratic target while in Congress, Northup developed a reputation as a tough campaigner and able fundraiser. She spent $1.2 million more than Yarmuth in 2006 and outraised the Democrat in this year’s first quarter. But with the aid of incumbency, Yarmuth came back and leads his opponent in the money race. According to Federal Election Commission data, Yarmuth had spent almost $1.7 million as of Oct. 15 and had $435,000 in cash on hand. Northup spent $1.2 million and had $469,000 in the bank.

Yarmuth has focused on his first-term accomplishments and made Northup’s campaign a mandate on Bush, but other political factors in the Bluegrass State are playing to the Democrat’s favor.

Northup’s political mentor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is locked in his own razor-thin re-election campaign and has not been able to stump for his protégé in Louisville. Democrats won back the governor’s mansion in 2007 after a four-year break, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) campaign efforts in southern Indiana, including portions that share the Louisville media market, have provided a small boost for Democrats in Yarmuth’s district.

Yarmuth has touted his vote to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Bush vetoed and Northup has vocally criticized, and his support to broaden veteran’s benefits under a 21st-century GI bill.

Northup, meanwhile, is heavily criticizing Yarmuth’s vote for the $700 billion economic rescue package and highlighting the special projects that she advocated for the district during her 10 years on the Appropriations Committee.

“John is a big-government guy, and I think there’s a little buyer’s remorse out there,” Northup spokesman Ted Jackson said.

Jackson noted that even with more Democrats in Congress, a likely scenario after Election Day, Northup could wield more influence for the district than her opponent.

“She’s been assured she’d have a seat on the Appropriations Committee, and even if you’re in the minority, that’s where the action is,” Jackson said.

But Northup’s message runs counter to the anti-earmark sentiment that has played out in the presidential race, especially from Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) campaign, and Yarmuth’s camp is painting Northup as an out-of-touch conservative in a district that swung for the Democratic presidential nominees in 2000 and 2004.

The 3rd district is the most liberal and ethnically diverse in a reliably conservative state. The district includes Louisville, a strong union town home to a Ford Motor Co. auto plant, and most of Jefferson County. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters are Democrats, compared with 32 percent who are Republicans, and nearly one in five are African-American. The latter statistic could prove even more helpful for Yarmuth this year with Obama at the top of the ticket.

Northup also finds herself in the spot of the uphill challenger just 18 months after losing to then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) in the 2007 Republican gubernatorial primary. Though Fletcher was plagued with charges of corruption going into his re-election bid, Northup was criticized by some party insiders for attempting to oust the sitting Republican governor. Northup handily won Jefferson County with 66 percent, but she lost statewide to Fletcher, 50 percent to 37 percent. Fletcher went on to lose to Democrat Steve Beshear in the general election.

“This is someone who lost [re-election] in 2006. She’s running a third time in two years, and I think she’s going to lose a third time,” Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Jennifer Moore said.

Challenging the GOP incumbent governor “created some disruptions, probably in the Republican Party itself,” but University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross said party leaders are also distracted this year by the surprisingly close race for McConnell, the godfather of the state GOP.

“I think she’s still suffering from deciding to run for governor, but McConnell also isn’t around to help,” Gross said. “He’s got his own hide to care about. It’s tough for him, and he knows he might lose.”

Jackson, Northup’s spokesman, said the campaign has not sought McConnell’s help this cycle. Instead, it has focused on Northup’s years in Congress, and Jackson remains optimistic that Northup will topple the freshman Democrat on Tuesday.

“We want people to remember what it was like for Anne to represent this district for 10 years,” he said. “She clearly represents the majority view of this district. John does not.”