Bluegrass Politics: The Finish Line

Oct 31, 2006 at 9:08 pm

With less than a week to go in this election season, we’re coming up on the final mile of an unusually grueling marathon. Next week, voters will decide whether to change course from one-party Republican rule and return to the prospect of a more evenly divided federal government.

The election couldn’t come at worse time for Republicans, who continue hemorrhaging from political wounds received from the war in Iraq, corruption scandals and the Mark Foley situation.

As a result, President Bush’s job approval rating hovers under 40 percent, a dangerously low historical level for a second-term president, and a majority of voters appear to be looking to Democrats for new leadership.

Even Fox News had to deliver the bad news to its conservative devotees when it released its own polling numbers last week, showing that the country now trusts Democrats more than Republicans on issues such as the economy (45 percent to 39), Iraq (45-36), taxes (42-40), immigration (39-36), ethics in government (38-29) and even moral values (37-34). The only category where Republicans are better viewed is on their ability to handle the threat of terrorism (43 percent to 35), a category where they had led by as many as 30 points just a few years ago.

Let’s recap what’s at stake this year:

National scene
Democrats need to pick up 15 seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate to take control of those chambers. The smart money says Democrats will regain the House, with national political observers predicting a shift of 20 to 30 seats, with the distinct possibility that an electoral tidal surge might be looming, swelling those gains even higher.

A Senate take-back is a tougher task for Democrats, since they’d have to hold on to all of their contested seats and win six of seven Republican seats up for grabs. But that prospect seems to be improving by the day, and is certainly not out of the question, particularly in Tennessee and Virginia, where over-the-top personal attacks by Republican incumbents have catapulted Democratic challengers to the lead. Meanwhile, Democrats have plugged some holes in the New Jersey Senate race, which continues to be its Achilles’ heel in its quest for a takeover.

Getting far less attention, but of great importance, is the expectation that Democrats will retake a majority of governorships, including some that have been in Republican hands for a while now, in states like New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado and Arkansas.

Dynamics in Kentucky
Kentucky finds itself in the national spotlight, with three especially competitive congressional races. Three incumbent Republicans — Anne Northup, Geoff Davis and Ron Lewis — have been locked in epic battles throughout the year.

Buoying the optimism of Democratic challengers in those races are new independent polling numbers released on Monday. They show Democratic challenger John Yarmuth taking a 52 percent to 46 percent lead over Northup in Louisville’s 3rd District battle, which is noteworthy after polls showed the race deadlocked for the past month.

Meanwhile, in the 4th District, former U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas (D) had pulled to a 50-46 lead over incumbent Davis, after the race see-sawed all year from a big early lead for Lucas, followed by a closing of the gap by Davis. Further, Lucas’ latest internal polling showed him up eight points earlier this week.

In the case of both Yarmuth and Lucas, the polling indicates that previously undecided voters are beginning to cast their lot, and not unexpectedly, are disproportionately siding with Democratic challengers, allowing each candidate to pierce that all-important 50-percent mark in the polls.

The dynamics in the 2nd District are also changing rapidly, as recently completed Democratic polling now shows State Rep. Mike Weaver (D) having entirely closed the gap against Lewis, the six-term incumbent.

In all three races, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now on the air with ads supporting their candidates, ensuring a strong finish for each. Remarkably, these results have developed despite massive fundraising advantage the three incumbents have held throughout the year.

Even in Western Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) — who received 67 percent of the vote in 2004 — has spent more than $500,000 against an opponent (former U.S. Rep. Tom Barlow, a Democrat) who hasn’t raised enough money to be required to file campaign finance reports. That indicates the degree of concern and softness of the political environment that Republican incumbents face this year.

The only congressional member not facing major party opposition is the state’s lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler. Noteworthy is that just four years ago it was the Democratic Party that failed to offer a challenge to then-U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R).

Beyond congressional races, the battleground inside Kentucky has been the state House, where Democrats have fielded more than a dozen excellent legislative candidates, and where all signs point to a four to eight seat pick-up, increasing their present 56-44 majority. After losing seven seats in 2004, Democrats are back, gunning hard for those freshman Republicans who defeated them two years ago.

While Democrats had earlier hoped to pick up the three seats needed in the state Senate to erase the Republicans’ slim majority, only two seats appear in serious contention, ensuring that Senate President David Williams (R) will remain in control of that chamber.

But the races that may have the most impact on the direction of the state might be the four hotly contested seats on the Kentucky Supreme Court, which will comprise a new majority on the seven-member court.

The lowdown in Louisville

Mayor Jerry Abramson appears headed for a lopsided re-election next week over Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, whose candidacy never showed the promise many expected. On the other hand, a strong Abramson victory might give him incentive to seriously consider a bid for governor next year.

On the legislative front, Democrats have focused efforts on two state House seats. In southwest Louisville, Tim Firkins (D) is in a strong position to defeat Dana Seum Stephenson (R) for the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Denver Butler (D) in the 38th House District.

Meanwhile, the race in House District 48 may prove the biggest upset of the night, where political newcomer Amy Shir (D) has worked tirelessly and run an impressive campaign in her quest to upset Minority Caucus Chairman Bob DeWeese (R) in the eastern part of the city. Democratic polling in that race last month showed Shir perfectly positioned to knock off the senior Republican on Election Night, if she can put enough boots on the ground for the final get-out-the-vote push.

The election to replace former Justice Martin Johnstone on the Kentucky Supreme Court continues to be hard fought and very close between Circuit Judge Ann O’Malley Shake and interim Supreme Court Justice William McAnulty. Shake has been the more aggressive campaigner, and some give her the inside edge after McAnulty experienced fall-out over his temporary appointment to the high court from Gov. Fletcher while the governor was still under indictment, and at a time when the high court was expected to further rule on his case. Regardless, most expect a tight finish between two capable candidates.

What’s next?

The outcome of next week’s elections will, no doubt, have major repercussions for both parties concerning the 2007 governor’s race. A takeover of the U.S. House will likely extinguish any hope Democrats had that Chandler would seek the governorship. Instead, all eyes will be on which candidate emerges from the top tier group, including former Gov. Brereton Jones, Auditor Crit Luallen and Abramson.

While a case can be made for each of the three to become the Democratic nominee, the most recent buzz has been focused on a comeback bid for Jones, with many believing he might team up with Louisville’s Jack Conway for a bid to return to Frankfort.

Among Republicans, should Northup lose her congressional seat, don’t be surprised if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) sees that as an unexpected opportunity to oust Gov. Fletcher in next year’s primary. Northup has proven she can raise considerable money, she’s a tough campaigner, and she has the stature to knock off a sitting governor of her own party.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; next week’s midterm elections are shaping up as one for the ages. Don’t forget to vote on Nov. 7.. Let your voice be heard.
Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected]