Features

Kentucky: Bad portent for the GOP?

National

Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

While Wisconsin grabbed the national political headlines on Feb. 17, it was another, little-noticed race that really captured the attention of Democrats on Capitol Hill. After a decade of losses in special elections, the Democrats scored a big win in Kentucky-and immediately turned their attention to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ben Chandler, a former Democratic state attorney general who just three months ago lost a bid for the governor's mansion, earned a measure of revenge by winning the vacant congressional seat of Ernie Fletcher, the Republican who trounced him in November's gubernatorial race. "I know what it's like to be on the other side and it feels pretty good to be on this side tonight," Mr. Chandler told a cheering crowd at the National Guard armory in Richmond. "It's been a wild ride for me and my family the last year and a half."

Back in November, Mr. Chandler's political career looked all but dead. As the scion of one of Kentucky's best-known political families, he was expected to continue a Democratic reign in Frankfort that had lasted a generation. Instead, he lost by 10 percentage points to Dr. Fletcher, a physician and three-term Republican congressman.

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Winning the congressional seat of his old nemesis may have been a personal victory for Mr. Chandler, but some Democrats tried to make it something bigger still. "Tonight is the opening shot of the November election," crowed Dale Emmons, a well-known Democratic campaign consultant in Kentucky.

The Chandler victory was a "big win for Democrats across America," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Minority Whip. "The people of Kentucky said today that Democrats are right on the issues, and that bodes well for us as we head into a big election in November."

Republicans countered that Mr. Chandler won largely because of his name recognition. In addition to running an expensive statewide contest three months ago, he's also well known as the grandson of a former two-term governor and as a two-term attorney general in his own right.

Still, the Democrats could hardly be blamed for attempting to nationalize the race. Mr. Chandler's opponent, State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, tied herself closely to the Bush administration in almost all her campaign ads. She "hooked her fortunes to George Bush, and his fortunes took a nose dive," said Mr. Emmons.

Mr. Chandler, on the other hand, was careful not to define himself as an opponent of the president, who enjoys a 63 percent approval rating in the district. He took an anti-Bush stance in last year's gubernatorial contest, and it backfired catastrophically. This time around, he presented himself as a fiscal conservative and an independent voice who would put the best interests of the district above national party concerns.

Until Tuesday, Rep. Ken Lucas was the Democrats' lone lawmaker in Kentucky's six-member delegation. He'll now be joined by Mr. Chandler, but not for long: The special election was called to fill only the remainder of Mr. Fletcher's term, so the new Democratic congressman will have to defend his seat again in November. Even if he wins, Republicans are confident they can return to their old 5-1 dominance when Mr. Lucas retires in November.

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