Campaign '06: A Conservative Face-Off in Kentucky

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If Democrats think voters' disenchantment with the Republican party this fall means an endorsement everywhere of more liberal political values, they only have to look at the race for Northern Kentucky's 4th congressional district to learn the truth. The Democrat breathing fire on a Republican incumbent is a former congressman with a record so solidly conservative that he refused to support Al Gore's nomination in 2000.

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The race between Rep. Geoff Davis, a conservative Republican and former Army Ranger with the 82nd Airborne Division, and former congressman Ken Lucas is considered one of the closest in the nation, and the stream of dollars and big-name campaigners who have visited the district has flowed faster than the nearby Ohio River.

"Democrats in Kentucky, we don't represent the same type of values you see in Connecticut, or in the national party for that matter," said state Rep. Dennis Keene, a Democrat . "We are more of a blue-collar conservative type of voter."

Kentucky voted for Bill Clinton twice, but has been trending Republicans since at least May of 1994, when Rep. Ron Lewis shocked the state's Democratic establishment to win a special election in central Kentucky that many say helped presage the GOP sweep that fall. And this Northern Kentucky district, stretching through 24 counties along the top of Kentucky, from the suburbs of Cincinnati all the way east to the coal fields on the West Virginia border, is its most conservative enclave, where President Bush won 63% of the vote in 2004. Davis won the seat easily two years ago over newscaster Nick Clooney (George's dad) when Lucas, the only Democrat to hold the seat since 1966, retired to honor a campaign pledge to serve just three terms.

Davis's campaign manager, Justin Brasell, said the national issues that are dogging Republicans nationwide won't hurt his campaign. He argues that Davis's conservative credentials and attention to local priorities like federal grants for schools and new Veterans Administration clinic in Florence, will win him votes. "Yes, voters are concerned about gas prices," he said. "But mostly, they ask Geoff about whatever is going on in their local communities. And that's our strength. We have worked well with Democrats and Republicans to get things done."

Still, President Bush's approval ratings, even in friendly Kentucky, have steadily declined this year, and Davis felt the need to pounce on what he called the House leaders' failure to respond to questions about former Rep. Mark Foley's interest in young pages working in the House. In addition, as Keene points out, both candidates in this race are pro-life, pro-guns, and anti-gay marriage.

"I think Lucas is in a tremendously strong position," said Keene, noting waning support for the President as well as the lingering effects of a patronage scandal in the administration of GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher. "We have a governor that has done everything wrong that you can do wrong. People are weary of President Bush's handling of Iraq and tired of higher gas prices. If you ask the average Joe out there, they want change."

Both campaigns have squabbled over competing poll numbers, but a Reuters/Zogby poll released two weeks ago put Davis ahead 42-36, with a margin of error of 4.5% (The Lucas campaign insists its own internal polling from over the summer shows him ahead by double-digits). Poll numbers aside, Davis has raised nearly three times as much money as Lucas has, $3.29 million to Lucas's $1.13 million.

That may be in part because Lucas entered the race late, having been drafted in January by local Democrats concerned that this year may be the party's best chance to win back the seat. One of those who helped lead public calls for Lucas to come out of retirement was Mark Nickolas, a former Democratic campaign worker who authors the popular political blog

"I think people are down on Republicans, more than they are down on conservatives," Nickolas said. "They feel Republicans have been running the ship of state aground, and they are not going to blame Lucas."

Lucas's campaign manager, Jim Creevy, declined repeated requests for an interview, explaining the campaign's media focus is on local, rather than national, press requests. In the meantime, residents in this part of Kentucky will be treated to a rare display of intense national campaigning, with the two parties' already reserving more than $4 million in air time for advertising.

In addition, last weekend continued a string of appearances by national political celebrities, including Saturday's visit by U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a potential 2008 White House hopeful. Biden, speaking less than 24 hours after a $90,000 fundraiser in the area headlined by White House spokesman Tony Snow, told local reporters that a win this fall could "change things for the next 20 years." But given how similar politically Davis and Lucas are, perhaps those changes won't be as drastic as Biden and his fellow Democrats would like to believe.