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.