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Another Wild Republican Primary in Kentucky

Fight to Replace Davis May Be Establishment Versus Tea Party Tilt

Retiring Rep. Geoff Davis had to fight hard to win his Northern Kentucky seat in 2004.

The Republican nominee this year won’t have the same problem. But getting the nomination will be an arduous journey for any of the ambitious GOP candidates vying to replace Davis.

Three weeks before the filing deadline, state Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore are officially in the GOP race. Lewis County Judge-Executive Thomas Massie, affiliated with the tea party movement, appears likely to join the race this week. His bid could set the stage for an establishment-versus-tea-party battle in the Bluegrass State.

“The wild card is Massie,” explained Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state. Grayson lost to now-Sen. Rand Paul in a fiercely contested 2010 GOP primary that solidified into a battle between the party establishment, which backed Grayson, and the tea party, which fervently supported Paul. 

“If [Massie] is a well-funded tea party candidate — you saw what happened in my race, that a well-funded tea party candidate can do very well,” Grayson said.

Grayson praised Webb-Edgington and Moore, both of whom backed his Senate bid. Massie supported Paul.

Republicans in Kentucky told Roll Call that Paul has been actively recruiting Massie. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentuckian, will not get involved in the primary, a source close to him said.

“I’ve talked with Geoff Davis, I’ve talked with [former Kentucky Sen.] Jim Bunning and I have talked with Rand Paul,” Massie said. He declined to get into the specifics of the conversations.

Webb-Edgington, a fiery former state trooper, appears to have the imprimatur of the GOP establishment and is seen as the early frontrunner in the race. She was the chairwoman of the 4th district Republican Party, elected by the county chairmen and vice chairmen in the district. Her campaign manager is Rick VanMeter, who served as communications director for Davis until earlier this month, and her general consultant is Justin Brasell, who worked with Grayson in 2010 and McConnell in 2008. Both are well-regarded in Kentucky political circles.

“I am not of the establishment. I am a Republican. And I think I represent all paradigms of the Republican Party,” Webb-Edgington said.

Republicans in the state think her work ethic and conservatism may be able to inoculate her from the potentially poisonous label of establishment.

“She’s just got that drive and a lot of time that’s a motivating factor that will ignite people at the grass-roots level,” said one Kentucky Republican with knowledge of the 4th district.

Moore could have a steeper battle against the establishment label. He has served in his position as executive of Boone County since January 1999 — a potential political burden.

In an interview, Moore emphasized his business credentials and Republicans in the state warn not to underestimate him.

Kentucky GOP strategists note that geography could play a large role in the election if Massie gets in the race. Lewis County, where Massie lives — which sits in the eastern part of the district and had a 2010 population of only 14,000 — is far away from the core of Republican voters in the district, who reside in the bedroom communities outside of Cincinnati, the region where Webb-Edgington and Moore are from.

That could put Massie at a distinct disadvantage with a weak geographic base of support. But if Webb-Edgington, Moore and any other candidates who get in the race from the Cincinnati region split their local vote, that could create an opportunity for someone such as Massie.

Republicans note that none of the declared or potential candidates would step into the race with very strong name identification district-wide.

The district, as it is currently drawn, is split through four major media markets, including the expensive Cincinnati-area market. That means broadcast TV ads that reach voters district-wide could be prohibitively expensive. Cable and direct mail are cheaper options, but to win the GOP primary in May, a candidate will likely need at least $500,000, GOP strategists said.

Republicans expect that Webb-Edgington, Moore and Massie are likely to be the top tier in the primary.

Kentucky GOP strategist Scott Jennings said he sees all the makings of a tough slog ahead in the primary. “I think this thing’s going to be a fight all the way out to May,” he said.

The filing deadline is Jan. 31, and the state Legislature is expected to complete the decennial redraw of Congressional lines before then. There is the potential, however, that a deadlocked Legislature could push the filing deadline forward to allow more time to finalize lines.

Democratic and Republican strategists in the state believe the 4th district will remain similar after redistricting. That means it would take a very unlikely turn of events for a Democrat to have a shot here, especially in a presidential year. Barack Obama took just 38 percent in the current 4th in 2008.

“It’s a tough district,” one Kentucky Democratic source said.