Aided by the tacit backing of the national party, businessman Geoff Davis (R) appears to be pulling away from attorney Kevin Murphy (R) in Kentucky’s 4th district Republican primary, one of the GOP’s top open-seat pickup opportunities in the country.
Recently released financial reports show Davis, who was the party’s nominee in 2002 against retiring Rep. Ken Lucas (D), raised $218,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31 while Murphy brought in just $33,000.
As significantly, Davis received contributions from the leadership political action committees of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (Ohio) and Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas), Hal Rogers (Ky.) and Patrick Tiberi (Ohio) during the period.
Murphy has not received any contributions from current or former Members of Congress. He has, however, donated $89,000 to the campaign from his own pocket and is independently wealthy.
The two men will square off May 18 with the winner running against former television anchor Nick Clooney (D) in the fall.
“We have polled against Mr. Murphy and we are very comfortable in our position,” said Davis spokesman Justin Brasell. “[Murphy] would have to vastly outspend us in order to beat us.”
Murphy campaign consultant Jay Townsend expressed little concern about the current financial state of play.
“I am very confident that Kevin Murphy will have all the money he needs when he needs it,” Townsend said.
Time is drawing short, however, as Davis appears likely to win the GOP nomination with less effort and expenditure than was first expected, disappointing Democrats hoping for a divisive and costly primary.
Bob Doyle, a consultant for Clooney, is still holding out hope that Murphy mounts a serious challenge to Davis.
“We think he is still live,” Doyle said.
He noted that Davis was not the first choice of Kentucky Republicans to run for the seat, which, he believes, speaks to the unrest among the party rank and file about the contest.
Soon after Lucas defeated Davis in 2002, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), the godfather of Bluegrass State politics, endorsed his former chief of staff, Hunter Bates (R), for the seat.
Bates ultimately did not make the race, choosing instead to run for lieutenant governor. He endorsed Davis’ candidacy shortly after deciding against a run.
Brasell, Davis’ spokesman, dismissed these concerns, seeking instead to paint the primary as a warm up for November.
“It gives us a chance to get organized early,” he said. “We have signs all over the district and we will do some mail to Republican voters.”
Brasell added that Davis does not plan to run any television advertising in the primary, choosing instead to husband his resources to spend against Clooney.
Murphy ran several weeks of television ads in the Cincinnati media market earlier in the year, a buy that included a somewhat inexplicable commercial in which he criticized the United Nations.
He is not running any television ads currently.
Regardless of the identity of the GOP standard bearer, this open seat is likely the top target for national GOPers given its demographics.
President Bush won 61 percent there in 2000, his second-best showing in the state’s six House districts — four of which are currently held by Republicans.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards noted that Clooney has led Davis in all Democratic and Republican polling to this point, adding: “The one thing we know about Geoff Davis is he can be beat. He lost to ken Lucas.”
Democrats are also heartened by Rep. Ben Chandler’s (D) 12-point special election victory on Feb. 17 in the neighboring 6th district, where Bush had a 13-point victory in 2000.
Although that district is not as conservative as the 4th, Democrats argue that Chandler’s victory shows their party can win in competitive Southern House seats.
Brasell retorted that the Republican defeat in the 6th district has actually helped the Davis campaign.
“The biggest effect we’ve noticed is that Republicans across Kentucky agree that this is a must-win race for us,” Brasell said.
He added that while he “hated” that state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) lost to Chandler, he “liked the fact that we’re the big game in town now.”
Although he has no primary opposition, Clooney has received at least as much press attention as his potential Republican opponents.
That is due in large part to Clooney’s ties to the entertainment industry. His son, George, is a well-known actor, while his late sister, Rosemary, was a famous singer.
George Clooney has done a number of fundraisers for his father, and several well-known Hollywood types including Michael Douglas and Renée Zellweger have donated to the campaign, a fact Republicans have seized on.
“The Republican nominee will emerge battle tested and poised to turn out the marquee of lights on Nick Clooney and his Hollywood friends,” predicted National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.
Clooney raised $479,000 in the first three months of the year, banking $425,000 of that. Davis had $612,000 on hand at that time; Murphy had $165,000.
Doyle said his candidate has “built an extremely strong fundraising base,” adding: “We are prepared for a vigorous roll-out of our general election strategy right after the Republican primary.”