Democratic candidate Ken Lucas looked like he would rather be any place other than Kentucky's public television studios Monday night as he debated freshman Republican Rep. Geoff Davis. A moderate conservative, Lucas was not going deep into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) liberal playbook that is intended to nationalize midterm Congressional elections.
Lucas had been coaxed out of political retirement at age 73 to run for the northern Kentucky congressional seat he held three terms. That put Davis, a conservative 25 years Lucas's junior and highly regarded among House Republicans, on the endangered list, trailing in early polls. But Lucas showed Monday night this has not been a happy campaign for him. While Democratic candidates nationwide pillory George W. Bush, Lucas did not mention the president's name and appeared uncomfortable with the DCCC attack litany.
Democrats must win seats like this to achieve a substantial working majority in the House. But Republicans have limited the election in Kentucky's 4th congressional district to a "choice" between two candidates instead of a "referendum" on an unpopular Republican president and Congress. That demonstrates that the struggle for Congress is not really a national election but is about 50 hotly contested local ones.
Registered Democrats still comprise a majority in the 4th district, thanks to rural areas where voters maintain their ancestral political faith. But Cincinnati's burgeoning Kentucky suburbs are Catholic, Republican and conservative. They elected Republican Jim Bunning to six terms before he went to the Senate in 1998. Lucas, a popular local official, replaced him as one of the more conservative Democrats in the House -- a 71 percent lifetime American Conservative Union (ACU) rating.
Lucas survived a surprisingly close call in 2002 against an underfunded Davis. Raised in Pittsburgh, Davis came to Kentucky in 1989 following graduation from West Point and 10 years as an Army officer. Lucas kept his pledge to leave after three terms, and Davis won in 2004 against radio personality Nick Clooney (father of actor George Clooney).
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the celebrated DCCC chairman, the next year scored a recruiting coup in getting Lucas to run. Returning the 4th district to Democratic hands was part of a national grand design. The problem was fitting Lucas's square conservative peg into the liberal hole of the DCCC game plan.
Lucas tried in Monday night's debate. He taunted Davis for voting the Republican line 96 percent of the time as "a pawn of your party" and attacked "a culture of corruption" (while never mentioning the Mark Foley scandal). Lucas missed the party line on Iraq, asserting: "We must win the war in Iraq. We have no other choice." Commenting on North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il, Lucas said: "He seems to be very popular with his people."
Lucas in the debate twice derisively called attention to use of big words by Davis. Indeed, Davis is a policy wonk considered by colleagues on the conservative Republican Study Committee to be one of the best-informed members of Congress. As for being a pawn, Davis noted his opposition to President Bush's Social Security reform. But the ACU rated him at 88 percent, and he is a social conservative. Asked his views on abortion by a student at Pendleton County High School the day after the debate, Davis replied: "I'm 100 percent pro-life."
But Davis spends more time dispensing pork than preaching the conservative gospel. Traveling through nominally Democratic rural areas Tuesday, Davis stopped in Berry (population: 310) for presentation of a $209,891 check from the federal government to establish broadband access there. The little town is 83 percent Democratic, but Davis figures to carry it. Gary Taylor, a local bank officer, told me he is a registered Democrat but is voting for Davis "because he has helped us, and we haven't heard from Ken Lucas."
With Kentucky returns coming early election night, the reports from the 4th District will be a harbinger. A victory by Lucas probably would be part of a Democratic wave and a Republican disaster. A win by Davis would entrench a Republican conservative in Congress far into the future. It would also mark the limits of nationalizing congressional elections.