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October 17, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: Dogs days for the GOP

With less than three weeks until Election Day, Republicans are experiencing the dog days of this political season at the worst possible time. It’s hard to imagine things getting more sweltering and uncomfortable for the GOP, which now must contend with more than 50 congressional seats in play, thanks to the caustic combination of the war in Iraq, Mark Foley and political corruption. Last week’s House race rankings by the National Journal showed that each of the 30 most vulnerable seats are Republican-held (Democrats need just 15 to regain control of the House). In Kentucky, fierce fights are under way for three Republican-held seats. In Louisville, John Yarmuth (D) continues to prove himself a worthy challenger to U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (R). Last month, some wondered (including myself, sheepishly) whether Yarmuth, a first-time candidate, would wilt following Northup’s out-of-context attack ads over his LEO columns of many moons ago. He didn’t. Instead, Yarmuth stuck to his guns, mixing humor into his response ads rather than the typical venom-for-venom knee-jerk reaction. As a result, Yarmuth is riding a wave of momentum, buttressed by a national poll showing the race deadlocked at 48 percent, confirmed earlier this week by his own polling. National political observers have steadily moved the race up the competitive ladder. No doubt, perils still lie ahead for Yarmuth. He has about $1 million less cash-on-hand than Northup, and there’s still no indication that the national Democratic Party intends to pick up the slack. But while Northup has faced and defeated tough opponents before, this is the first time she’s ever faced a tough political environment, and one where she’s not scoring bonus points by waving her Republican flag or reminding voters of her especially close relationship with the President. Earlier this week, I spoke with Jack Conway (D), Northup’s 2002 challenger, after he had a peek at Yarmuth’s internal polling. Conway told me Yarmuth’s current numbers are stronger than his at this stage four years ago, a contest he eventually lost by just three points. He now believes Yarmuth has to be considered the slight favorite. The 4th Congressional District remains where it’s been for months: with U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis (R) and former U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas (D) locked in an epic battle under the national spotlight. The polls have jumped around faster than a pinball, and it’s unlikely we’ll know the winner of that race until well into the evening of Nov. 7. While Davis has smashed Lucas in fundraising by a 3-to-1 margin, the Democratic Party’s campaign committee has vowed to drop nearly $3 million into the race on Lucas’ behalf. The 2nd Congressional District continues to draw attention as State Rep. Mike Weaver (D-Radcliff) mounts the toughest challenge that U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis (R) has faced in a long time. While Weaver’s internal polling showed him chopping Lewis’ fat early lead into single digits of late, his campaign continues to be plagued by his verbal gaffes and inability to mount an effective advertising campaign in a district that spans four media markets, including Louisville. Still, sensing an awful and uncertain political climate, Lewis has not been shy about running a scorched earth negative campaign while refusing to debate Weaver even once. Without a doubt, a Weaver victory seems the least likely of the state’s three main races, but should 2006 prove to be a political tsunami that takes out the GOP beachhead, Weaver may well find himself floating right into Congress on his tattered and overmatched raft. And while neither of the state’s two Senate seats are up this year, the outcome of the November election will have enormous implications for Kentucky. Until a few months ago, it seemed certain that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) would become the next Senate Majority Leader. But the cancerous political climate has hit Republican Senate campaigns very hard, especially of late, and Democrats are now positioned to do what was unthinkable not long ago: pick up the six seats needed to take control of the Senate. A lot can still happen in three weeks, and we’ve all seen how suddenly the political pendulum can swing. But there’s no mistaking the palpable voter anger that exists this year, and don’t be surprised if you wake up on Nov. 8 and find that half of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation are Democrats, and that they are the only ones in the majority. It’s shaping up to be that kind of year. Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org