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Conway Ponders Return

Highly Touted Young Lawyer May Seek Rematch With Rep. Northup

Ever since ousting a Democratic incumbent in 1996, Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) has worn a not-so-invisible vulnerable label and bull’s-eye target in addition to the Members’ pin on her lapel.

The Louisville lawmaker has consistently ranked high among the handful of House Republicans targeted by Democrats for defeat. But after winning re-election last November with 60 percent of the vote — her largest winning margin yet — Northup’s endangered status appears to be in flux for 2006.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) has been aggressively recruiting Louisville attorney Jack Conway (D) to challenge Northup in 2006. Beyond Conway, few alternative prospects have emerged. But, party strategists are promising Northup will again see a competitive race next year.

Conway faced off against Northup in 2002 and lost by fewer than 7,400 votes, the best performance of any challenger since she won the Democratic-leaning seat.

In an interview Monday, Conway confirmed he is considering a rematch.

“I am interested,” he said. “I have told the DCCC that I will consider the race and I’m looking at it.”

Conway said he will make his plans known in the next month or two, after assessing his fundraising potential and whether Northup’s 60 percent to 38 percent win over Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Tony Miller (D) last year had larger implications.

“Was that an aberration, or did Anne Northup do something to lock up a significant number of Democratic votes in 2004?” Conway asked.

Last year, for the first time in her Congressional career, Northup earned the endorsements of several prominent local Democrats.

Three of the last four Northup challengers — Miller, Conway and former state Rep. Eleanor Jordan — attended a forum in Louisville last week, to discuss how Democrats can beat Northup. About 150 people attended the event, which was sponsored by the Louisville Women’s Forum and moderated by Martha McKenna of EMILY’s List, who managed Jordan’s 2000 campaign.

Kentucky’s filing deadline is only a little more than four months away (Jan. 26, 2006) and Democrats are anxious to get a candidate into the race sooner rather than later, as Northup continues to stockpile money for her re-election. While not offering specific names, DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said that the party remains confident that a top tier challenger will emerge, even if Conway decides to pass on another run.

“While Conway is an excellent candidate, we have been approached by a variety of good candidates,” Feinberg said, noting Northup’s continued inclusion on Republicans’ fundraising list as proof she’s still considered vulnerable. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won the Metro Louisville 3rd district in last year’s presidential contest, taking 51 percent.

Northup spent $3.2 million to defeat Conway in 2002 and $3.3 last year against Miller — outspending both Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin. As of June 30, she reported $856,000 in her campaign war chest.

Democrats tried to woo Conway to run again in 2004, but he declined saying that the state party apparatus was too weak.

Things are looking brighter for Democrats next year, he said, citing the unpopular administration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), whose poll numbers have plummeted in the wake of a controversy over pardons.

Conway, who recently turned 36 and is engaged to be married next year, also admitted he’s looking at running for statewide office in 2007, in which case he would not challenge Northup next year.

“I think 2006 is shaping up to be a very different dynamic than we’ve had for the last eight or 10 years,” Conway said. “Quite frankly, I think 2006, 2007 and our state races here in Kentucky, and 2008 will all likely be very good years for Democrats. So that’s intriguing to me.”

Some see Fletcher’s troubles as vindication for Conway, whose 2002 campaign suffered in the wake of a sex scandal involving then-Gov. Paul Patton (D). Conway had served as a deputy cabinet secretary in Patton’s administration and his ties to the unpopular governor where exploited by Republicans in his 2002 race.

“The Patton stuff is so stale right now,” Conway said. “In 2002 voters here were given a steady diet of ads featuring photographs of Patton and me together. It’ll be interesting to see in 2006, TV ads featuring supporters of Ernie Fletcher having to run for re-election.”

But National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti disagrees with the assertion that incumbents like Northup, who haven’t been personally implicated in the state government mess, will be made more vulnerable by Fletcher’s problems and low poll numbers. Forti also argued that Northup’s 2004 performance should serve to squelch Democratic cries of vulnerability once and for all.

“The past three cycles she has vanquished whichever top-tier Democrat that has decided to challenge her,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to see Jack Conway again.”