Tuesday, October 17, 2000

House race a sleepy hollow

Lucas' opponent held back by money

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DRY RIDGE, Ky. — Two years ago, Northern Kentucky's 4th District U.S. House race was one of the hottest in the country.

        The candidates — Democrat Ken Lucas and Republican Gex (Jay) Williams — were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, employing relatively large staffs, pumping out press releases and crisscrossing the vast 22-county district.

        National newspapers and political publications, including The Washington Post and Roll Call, were covering the race on an almost weekly and, in some cases, daily basis.

        And big name Republicans, from Newt Gingrich to Steve Forbes to William Bennett, were rolling into Kentucky to campaign for Mr. Williams in an effort to keep a Congressional seat the GOP has held since the Johnson administration.

        This year, it's hard to tell there is a race going on between Mr. Lucas and Don Bell, a Republican who is a retired Secret Service agent from Oldham County, on the far western edge of the 4th District.

        The advantage of Mr. Lu cas' incumbency coupled with Republicans' failure to attract a candidate from Northern Kentucky — where about half the district's voters reside — has given the appearance of a lop-sided race with the Democrats poised to coast to victory.

        “You don't see any signs of a race at all,” said Terry Mann, a leading Campbell County Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 1986.

        “My gut feeling is the Republicans are banking totally on a big turnout for (presidential candidate) George W. Bush doing something for (Mr. Bell),” Mr. Mann said.

        “That might be the only strategy they have, because you sure don't see any great activity, no campaign signs or bumper stickers, in that race.”

        Republican Party leaders publicly bristle at such suggestions, claiming that Mr. Bell is a contender and that Mr. Lucas is vulnerable in a district known for its conservative leanings.

        “I see Don Bell out on the campaign trail all the time,” said Steve Kramer, a Villa Hills Republican running for Kenton County Circuit Court Clerk.

        “He's working hard. I know because I see him in all the places I'm going, and I've been working hard.”

        Added Boone County GOP Chairman Ed Moore: “Don Bell has been out working for 16 or 17 months, in Northern Kentucky and all over the 4th District. This is a district that is going to turn out big for George Bush, and that is going to hurt Ken Lucas.”

        But the Republican party's actions are not matching their words:

        • Only about 20 people turned out last week for a “rally” for Mr. Bell, held at the Holiday Inn Express in Dry Ridge in Grant County, and at least four of those people were party leaders and activists from outside the county.

        • A sparse crowd also turned out for a fund-raiser held for Mr. Bell last week in Fort Mitchell and hosted by three of the region's top Republicans — Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore, Kenton County Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd and Campbell County Judge-executive Steve Pendery.

        • By contrast, the local Republican Party has been aggressive in holding political events and rallies to boost Mr. Bush's campaign.

        Last week a group of state and local party leaders took a three- city tour to campaign for Mr. Bush in Kentucky. In Northern Kentucky, a group of young Republicans has formed, calling themselves Young Professionals for Bush. And a group of Republican leaders is gathering here tonight to watch the debate.

        • Neither Mr. Bell nor local GOP leaders is feeding reporters with information or news about Mr. Bell or his campaign.

        Despite all that, Mr. Bell said he has no complaints about the level of support from Republicans in the district.

        “Things are moving in the right direction. We're seeing a lot of enthusiasm among our base Republicans,” he said.

        One Northern Kentucky Republican Party strategist, who didn't want to be named, expressed skepticism.

        “I just don't see how he can win, because there isn't much happening,” he said. “Don Bell might be working hard and showing up at some events, but you have to have a media campaign, and you have to have some money, and Don Bell doesn't have any money.”

        Which brings up another problem for Mr. Bell.

        Mr. Lucas' campaign reported this week that through the end of last week he had $527,649 campaign cash on hand. That money is being used to purchase television and radio ads that began running last week in media markets throughout the district.

        Mr. Bell has not yet filed his report and would not say last week how much money he has raised. But he did say during an interview in Grant County that he doubts he will have enough money to run TV ads.

        Mr. Bell explained, “Our campaign has to be a grass roots campaign. Money is just not an issue. We're going to win this race the old-fashioned way, with hard work.”

        Even Mr. Lucas is not as aggressive as he was two years ago.

        Only now is he starting to hold campaign events, though he has held several political fund-raisers this year. Meanwhile, his top aide and a key member of his 1998 campaign, John Lapp, took a leave of absence from Mr. Lucas' Washington office last week to work on a New York Congressional race.

        Still, Washington-based political journals handicapping the race — including Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly — both list the race as “likely Democrat” and “safe Democrat.”

        “Part of the Republicans' problem has been that Lucas usually votes like them,” Roll Call wrote, citing Mr. Lucas' votes and stance on tobacco and taxes.

        Eric Deters, Mr. Bell's campaign manager, has said all along Mr. Bell hopes for big coattails from Mr. Bush on election day.

        “Don is working hard, and I still think Don is going to win and make a tremendous Congressman,” Mr. Deters said. “But the political reality is that this is a tough race for somebody from Oldham County to win when they are running against a Northern Kentucky Republican.”


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