Two Parties Spin Kentucky Result

Posted February 20, 2004 at 6:03pm

Rep.-elect Ben Chandler’s (D-Ky.) convincing victory over state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) in the 6th district special election last week left both parties sifting — and spinning — the election results as they look toward November.

As always in high-profile races, the winning side sought to draw broad conclusions about what its victory means for the national political picture, while the party on the losing end engaged in a bit of back-biting and blame.

On its surface, Chandler’s 55 percent to 43 percent win did little more than reduce Republicans to the 12-seat majority they held prior to Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) mid-January party switch. Republicans now hold 228 seats and Democrats 205, with one independent and one vacancy.

But Democrats cast the race as a national referendum on President Bush and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate as well as a strong indicator that they can compete in Southern districts the president won in 2000.

“Republicans have to be very careful about how they use the president,” said Mark Mellman, Chandler’s pollster. “People want to vote for a Representative, not for the president again.”

Kerr ran ads touting that she and President Bush were “cut from the same cloth.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the idea that Democrats cannot compete in the South the “Republicans’ favorite new talking point,” adding: “Ben Chandler won because he is the better candidate with a centrist message that resonates with voters.”

Republicans pushed back hard, noting that Chandler began the race with a large lead and high name recognition gained from four statewide bids in the past 12 years. They called the short time frame for the special election their biggest barrier.

“Time ran out,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said about Kerr’s loss.

“We started at the foot of that mountain,” added Kentucky Republican Party Chairwoman Ellen Williams.

Reynolds rejected the idea that Bush had any deleterious effect on Kerr’s candidacy.

“The president enjoys very strong popularity in Kentucky,” said Reynolds, noting that internal polls conducted just before the election showed Bush with a favorability rating of more than 60 percent.

Reynolds’ Democratic counterpart said that his party sees the Kentucky results as a positive step in the Democrats’ bid to retake control of the House.

“The lesson people will learn from this is that Democrats can win in red states and can win in rural districts that have historically been in the hands of Republicans,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “The Democratic base is very motivated to get out and send the president and Washington a message.”

Attempting to tap into the anger Matsui identified in the Democratic base, the DCCC focused heavily on direct mail, phone calls and other get-out-the-vote activities, targeting 30,000 households in the 6th district that were particularly receptive to an anti-Bush message.

But while Bush did win the district by 13 points in the 2000 presidential race (meeting the technical criteria of “red”), registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 100,000, making this a swing district.

In addition, the district is far from rural, with only 29 percent of it falling under that classification, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America, making it the second least rural of Kentucky’s districts. Nearly half of the district’s population lives in and around Lexington.

Jason Ralston, Chandler’s media consultant, offered a slightly more nuanced argument on the national implications of the contest.

“To view this as a referendum on Bush is overstating it,” he said. But he added: “Bush’s coattails are short, and people want someone at the end of the day who is going to be independent.

“For a lot of these culturally conservative swing voters, you need to reassure them on values issues so that they are open to hearing another message,” Ralston said. “Before they listen to you they need to be reassured you are like them.”

It remains unclear whether the anger to which Matsui referred will continue to be a potent motivator to the Democratic base both in South Dakota, where a special House election is scheduled for June 1, and, more importantly, in November.

In South Dakota, attorney Stephanie Herseth (D) and state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) are competing for the seat of former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned Jan. 20 after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter. Early polls have shown Herseth, the 2002 nominee for the at-large seat, far ahead.

At this point, it does not appear as though Democrats have fielded enough serious challengers to Republican incumbents to take advantage of the anger in their base toward the Bush administration and House GOPers.

Reynolds was quick to point out this relative dearth of strong Democratic challengers.

“It is difficult to gain momentum without candidates,” he said, noting that the 2002 GOP freshman class is the largest since the 1994 Republican revolution that delivered the party into the majority.

According to Reynolds, 21 of the 40 freshman Republican Members have no announced Democratic challenger.

While Republicans were unified in insisting that Kerr’s loss would have no lasting impact on their efforts to stay in the majority, there was significant infighting over how the race was run.

Some GOP strategists directed their ire at Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who deployed his chief of staff and a press spokeswoman to oversee the Kerr campaign.

“You had McConnell, McConnell’s staff and McConnell’s consulting team surrounding this candidate and she stumbled from the get-go,” said one GOP source.

The most glaring error came in an early Kerr ad in which she said the Congressional seat was not a “consolation prize” for her, implicitly referring to Chandler’s failed 2003 gubernatorial bid, said the source.

The source also pointed out that McConnell first used the phrase “consolation prize” when Chandler was considering entering the House race and was the lead proponent of using that line of attack on television.

“That was a very poor strategic decision and one that the campaign — even with the NRCC’s help — could not recover from,” the strategist said. Voters saw the ad as an attack from a candidate they barely knew, which drove Kerr’s negatives up and hurt her credibility, the GOP operative said.

But Republicans privately admitted in the weeks leading up to the vote that Chandler had done an effective job of insulating himself from potential GOP attacks, leaving them with little fodder for hard-hitting television ads.

Williams, the state party chairwoman and a McConnell ally, said that “for anyone to lay blame at Senator McConnell’s feet is unfair, sour grapes and a cheap shot.”

She did acknowledge that as the most high-profile Republican in the state, McConnell is a lightning rod for credit when GOPers win and blame when they lose.

McConnell is widely viewed as the architect of the Republican Party’s dominance in the Bluegrass State over the past decade, which included takeovers of four of the state’s six House seats, a Senate seat and the governor’s office.

“There is not anybody who has done more in the trenches for us than Mitch,” she said.