By Sam Youngman - 01/10/07 12:00 AM EST
Though Kentucky Republicans will focus 2007 on maintaining the governor’s mansion, those in the 3rd congressional district already are gunning to retake a congressional seat lost in last year’s Democratic wave.
Freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who narrowly defeated five-term congresswoman Anne Northup with 51 percent of the vote, is facing a local and state GOP bitter over Northup’s defeat.
While reports are circulating that Northup, a hero to state Republicans, will throw her hat in the primary ring against embattled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a number of Louisville Republicans are chomping at the bit to win back the congressional seat that is comprised almost wholly of Louisville, the commonwealth’s largest metropolitan area.
In a state that has been trending red since voting for President Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s, Louisville has proven to an exception, culminating most recently with Yarmuth’s election.
The chairman of the Jefferson County GOP, Jack Richardson IV, said Louisville continues to be a conservative city, and that Yarmuth’s election was less about the two candidates than a poisoned national environment.
Richardson said voters in the district are reeling from “a case of buyer’s remorse” despite the brevity of Yarmuth’s six-day-old tenure.
“Voters wanted to throw a tantrum to send a message,” Richardson said. “[But] it’s kind of like when you sober up the next day and you get a hangover and you say, ‘What in the world did I do?’”
Richardson said Yarmuth, a wealthy alternative-newspaper publisher, will be “just another rich kid on the block” in Washington who will come to find the congressional workload interferes with his golf game.
“Jack Richardson has about as much credibility as President Bush,” Yarmuth said. “I’ll have at least a year and a half to demonstrate my commitment to the job and the district and the country, and I have no doubt that I’ll do that.”
The Republican strategy against Yarmuth from the outset of the midterm race was to mine his hundreds of columns from his alternative newspaper in an effort to paint him as too liberal for the district.
“Louisville is not an overly conservative district, particularly when you’re talking about economic issues,” Yarmuth said.
State GOP Chairman Darrell Brock admits Louisville is “different than the rest of the state.” Kentucky has been a solid red state in both of President Bush’s campaigns, but Louisville voted for both former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), though by slim margins.
A longtime political reporter for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Al Cross, said the 3rd District is trending Democratic, with a large number of “traditional blue-collar, grey-collar heritage Democrats,” who want to vote the party line if presented with a viable option.
“It’s not a friendly district, if you will,” Brock said. “[But] at the end of the day, the state is trending Republican.”
That said, both Brock and Richardson acknowledged that Fletcher’s rocky tenure, compounded by at least one primary challenger thus far, creates potentially dangerous ground for the party. Fletcher was the first Republican elected governor in the state in 32 years, but his administration has been haunted by a series of high-profile indictments and subsequent pardons.
Fletcher’s approval ratings hovered around, and even below, 30 percent most of last year after he pardoned a number of indicted and unindicted administration officials following an aggressive grand jury investigation into the governor’s hiring practices. State Republicans acknowledge that there is some concern that there could be an Ohio-effect, where a troubled state official causes headaches for the entire party.
Richardson pointed to the example of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft’s tainted administration that created an environment in which Democrats were able to make significant gains on every level. Richardson said Taft “practically destroyed the Republican Party there.”
The 2007 governor’s race will be the first test of party strength in Kentucky, setting the stage for the congressional campaign, Brock said.
“Frankly, if we win the governor’s office, it makes it easier to retake the congressional seat,” Brock said. “I think the trend is still clearly there. I won’t say [the Northup loss and Fletcher troubles] stopped it, but it clearly slowed the momentum.”
Possible challengers to Yarmuth include Erwin Roberts, a former Fletcher administration official and member of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, and Chris Thieneman, a builder and contractor popular in the growing southern area of the district, according to a source familiar with Louisville Republican politics.
Roberts, who is black and described as “conservative, well-spoken and better looking than Barack Obama,” was named one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the hiring scandal, according to reports.
Cross cautioned that Roberts’s baggage from his time with the governor could prove to be a substantial liability.
Though Richardson wouldn’t comment on the names of potential candidates, he did say he thought a front-runner would emerge quickly despite the attention being paid to what is sure to be a hotly contested governor’s race. He added that he thinks it is “a foregone conclusion” that Northup will enter the governor’s race, giving her more than a 50 percent chance to win.
The filing deadline for the governor’s race is Jan. 30, after which, Richardson said, potential House candidates will begin to come forward, making their intentions known and beginning the process of raising money.
Yarmuth said he expects the fundraising process to run more smoothly this time around, as many of the district’s Democratic donors had long thought the seat to be out of reach.
The congressman was not thought to be a favorite of former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Newsweek’s Howard Fineman described Yarmuth as “Emanuel’s fourth choice.”
Yarmuth conceded the notoriously abrasive Emanuel “was skeptical of my chances,” but he insists that no bad blood remains and Emanuel has been helpful in securing committee assignments.
As for Roberts, Thieneman or any other Louisville Republican looking to 2008, Yarmuth says he will be ready.
“I’m not taking anything for granted, but I’m not afraid of any candidate,” he said.