Liberal Dem Wins In Paul's Kentucky

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Aaron Borton / the Courier-Journal / AP

Incumbent Democratic Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky gives an acceptance speech after defeating Todd Lally in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 2, 2010

On Tuesday afternoon, as Kentuckians were busy choosing Rand Paul to be their next U.S. Senator, the politician took a break to tell local reporters what his race had been about from the beginning: Barack Obama and the President's leftist agenda. That message never much wavered in the long — and often nasty — days of campaigning. But Paul wasn't the only Kentucky candidate for Congress who won big on Tuesday by telling voters exactly where he stood, consequences be damned. The other was a Democrat who stood for almost exactly everything Paul opposes.

Representative John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Louisville, campaigned early and consistently on his vote for health care reform and his support of Nancy Pelosi and Obama, gay rights, expanded veterans' benefits and half a dozen other measures he sees as big wins for the country since 2008. His 11-point victory over a creditable challenger in a district that leans Democratic but had seen its politics roiled by the Tea Party surge may offer Democrats nationally one way to understand what went wrong and how to fix it.

"One of the problems we had nationally was that we had a lot of members who had been in office a long time and had kind of been cruising," Yarmuth told TIME on late Tuesday over the still raucous cheers of relieved supporters in the background. "So when they found themselves in an environment where people were yelling in their faces, they lacked the skills and the confidence to defend the good things they had just accomplished." Instead, he said, too many congressional Democrats "pandered" to an angry and frustrated electorate, instead of selling them on the benefits of health care reform and the rest.

Such candor has worked for Yarmuth since 2006, when he rode a Democratic surge into the House, wresting the seat away from a popular and strongly conservative 10-year incumbent, Anne Northup. And it worked this year against Tea Party–inspired Todd Lally, a UPS pilot and Iraq-war veteran whom polls had put within a hair of Yarmuth after the campaign hammered the incumbent for his votes with Pelosi and for increasing the nation's towering debt.

Yarmuth, easily the most liberal member of Congress from Kentucky in decades, never apologized for any of the legislation he has helped passed since Obama's Inauguration. "I've been outspoken on these issues for a long time," he told TIME. "And when I've been out talking to constituents, I have never wavered on my positions. They know I am someone who will say exactly what I feel."

It was a strategy that proved pivotal compared with those of his compatriots across Kentucky. Much more moderate Democrats fared far less well. Democrat Ben Chandler declared apparent victory but only after he squeaked ahead by a few hundred votes in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. Paul's opponent in the Senate race, Democratic state attorney general Jack Conway, never seemed to show voters exactly where he stood or find his voice — at least not before giving a passionate and articulate concession speech on Tuesday.

Yarmuth was reluctant to criticize Conway, who is also from Louisville, but he agreed that the Democratic Senate candidate had failed to convince skeptical voters that he stood for something powerful. "I hate to talk about Jack's campaign, because I feel Jack did what he had to do," Yarmuth said, giving a nod to the fact that Kentucky voters as a whole are far more conservative than the ones he faced in Louisville. "But one of the problems Jack had was that he never — well, he tried to kind of guess where most Kentuckians were on the issues. And voters usually can see through that. He didn't stand up for particular values and say, 'This is my position, even if it's unpopular.' He may have believed in every position he took, but he never convinced voters."

In his victory speech, Yarmuth called the night bittersweet and said the contumely that had been heaped on Pelosi and Obama throughout the campaign was "not only unjustified but un-American." But he saved the biggest part of his speech for a quiet but powerful exhortation of what Democrats should remember about themselves as they find a role in a Washington turned upside down by the election results. "We face an interesting couple of years," he said. "This has been an extremely weird political year. Yesterday [retiring GOP Senator] Jim Bunning predicted that I was going to win. It doesn't get weirder than that. But you can be sure of one thing: I will remain a tireless, passionate voice who works to make this country one that works for everyone, not just a privileged few ... The Democratic Party is a party ultimately of values, and very American values — whether it's making sure that women are never discriminated in the workplace, that gays and lesbians are full citizens of this country in every respect or that every person, regardless of their ethnicity, race, creed or orientation, is regarded by everyone else as an American."

That kind of declaration may seem almost old-fashioned for a Democrat in 2010, and it's not clear that the party, or the President, will be eager to embrace such a robust challenge to the newly invigorated Republicans. And it's also true that the boldness Yarmuth expresses in Louisville could just as easily backfire elsewhere. But it's working so far in Louisville, which is no San Francisco. It's Senator Mitch McConnell's hometown, a place where city and county governments have merged in a mix of conservative suburbs and funky urban corridors.

Yarmuth said his first priority will be to work on legislation that helps move the U.S. past the crises it faces. But he said he's "not optimistic" that the political atmosphere will allow that kind of input from the soon-to-be minority party. "This job is going to be very different," he told TIME. "I am going to have to feel my way around it. If I need to be a strong voice of loyal opposition — that's a role I can play."