Kentucky politics really are local

Posted: Apr 20, 2006 1:00 PM

Next to Augusta, Georgia’s Masters Tournament, the Kentucky Derby is perhaps the best exhibit of Southern hospitality and genteel charm in the country. The renowned twin steeples, which keep watch over the track, the mint juleps sipped by gentlemen in linen suits, and the extraordinary hats worn by Southern belles, all remind the world of the considerate contest that takes place each spring at Churchill Downs.

Yet, Kentucky’s Third District, which encompasses Louisville and the Derby, is also the site of a less reverential competition, which takes place every other fall and is certainly not respectful. The participants? Not horses, but 5 term Republican Congresswoman Anne Northup and whichever well funded Democrat attempts to topple her. 

Congresswoman Anne Northup is a Republican who holds one of the most heavily Democratic seats in the country. Year in and year out, the Democrats target her district as one ripe for a takeover. Year in and year out, the Kentucky Democratic Party puts up its best candidates in the district, and year in and year out, Northup survives for another term. 

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by more than 2-1. And before 2004, Northup had never won more than 53% of the vote. In 2004, the Congresswoman defeated Tony Miller by than 22 percentage points.   

First elected in 1996, Northup is a Republican’s dream. A teacher by trade, not only is she ladylike and articulate, but she is telegenic, a mother of six (including two adopted minority children), and able to minimize image problems that occasionally beset Republicans among minorities and single women. 

Early in her Congressional career, Northup sought several leadership positions, but has since retreated from moving up in the ranks, in order to focus on winning close reelection fights. She has proven that all politics are local, as the overwhelmingly Democratic district voted 57% for John Kerry in 2004, yet continually elects Northup. Not only is she good at bringing home the bacon for local projects that stimulate the economy, she connects with voters by often beginning an argument with ‘as a mother of six…” The locals trust her, and they trust her judgment. Not only does she work hard at everything she does (and thus earn the respect of her opponents), she has raised millions for her campaigns over the years, and her campaign war chest is bursting with more than $1 million this year. 

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, noted that competition for congressional seats is "gone with the wind." Not so in Louisville. Every other year, a well-funded Democrat with national help takes on Northup. This year, there are two main contenders for the Democratic nomination, to be decided by the May 16th primary.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, both of the potential nominees fall into unsuccessful Democratic ‘molds.’ 

Andrew Horne follows the mold of Paul Hackett of Ohio, who lost a close special election for Rep. Rob Portman’s seat to Rep. Jean Schmidt. Horne is an Iraq war veteran who worked his way through college and law school. Most of his talking points focus on criticizing the war in Iraq. As President Bush and the Republican Party used national security to trounce the Dems in 2002 and 2004, the Democratic Party has actively sought young, energetic veterans to run for Congressional seats by criticizing the war efforts. Several other Democratic candidates nationwide fit this mold, but the jury will return verdict on their success in November. Horne has obtained the endorsement of several unions and retired general Wesley Clark, but his fundraising prowess has been reduced with the emergence of a primary opponent, thus limiting national dollars that would have otherwise flowed in.
John Yarmuth follows the other Democratic ‘formula for success.’ Not only does he have a history of liberal commentaries, as a columnist in a local newspaper he founded, Yarmuth is independently wealthy and has fairly high name recognition among primary voters. More often that not, however, wealthy Democrats with leftist paper trails lose elections. 

Yarmuth said he’s running because, “I really believe we can change the country, and I believe there is no better time to change the country than right now.”  

He added, “Anne Northup and I have very different views of the way the world should work.” “She thinks it's OK that Exxon runs it, and I believe in the old- fashioned, 'of the people, by the people, for the people.'"

Yarmuth also said Republicans will "do everything they can not to talk about Anne's record...I'm willing to stand by the things I've written if she's willing to stand by the votes she's cast. That will be the emphasis of my campaign."

Northup plans to defend her record at every turn, as she has for the last five elections—and rely on a superbly funded and well-managed campaign. 

Jack Conway, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Northup in the 2002 general election, said that Yarmuth's knowledge of the issues makes him the better candidate. 

"Running against Anne Northup,” he said, “entails the ability to pull together financial resources and an understanding of the issues to take her on a daily basis.” While Horne's service in Iraq should be honored, "this election is broader than Iraq," Conway said.

The Democrats can only pick up this seat if they can speak coherently and credibly on a whole host of issues, not just criticize the war in Iraq. However, in the past few elections cycles, Democratic vitriol for President Bush has completely overwhelmed any campaign messages that might resonate with voters. 

Either Andrew Horne or John Yarmuth will emerge as the donkey running against the Anne Northup dynasty in this derby. Who will cross the finish line in November? Will it be a photo finish?