Saturday, November 9, 2002

Murgatroyd campaign revisited


Incumbent held off challenger by keeping base

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Last April when Kenton County Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd conducted the first poll of his re-election campaign, the numbers showed him with 52 percent of the vote.

Tuesday night, that poll proved prophetic: Mr. Murgatroyd finished with 52 percent against Fort Wright Democrat Patrick Hughes.

The outcome speaks to how the incumbent was able to hold his core base of countywide support, even as Mr. Hughes made up considerable ground in the campaign's final weeks.

"We knew to win we had to hold that 52 percent of the voters, which represented our base, " said Rick Robinson of Fort Mitchell, a Kenton County GOP strategist who advised the Murgatroyd campaign. "Pat Hughes came at us hard and picked up a lot of support to make the race close. But he never was able to rattle our base, to tear down that wall."

Mr. Murgatroyd won a tight re-election campaign despite being portrayed by Mr. Hughes as a weak leader who raised taxes, couldn't settle on a location to build a jail, took campaign contributions from contractors who received work from the county and affiliated agencies and wasted taxpayer money.

"They threw a lot at us but it didn't stick," said Kenton County Deputy Judge-executive Scott Kimmich. "Our polling showed they weren't hitting the right issues, or at least the issues that were important to our base of voters."

On taxes, which were raised by the fiscal court Mr. Murgatroyd oversees, many voters continued to support the incumbent when they realized the money went for services that included upgrading the county's 911 system and its sanitary sewer system.

"We polled and asked people if they were upset that their phone tax was raised $1.50 a month," Mr. Kimmich said. "When they found out it went for a better 911 system, most didn't have a problem with paying more."

The jail issue did not resonate other than in places such as Elsmere, which Mr. Murgatroyd failed to carry largely because the county had proposed moving the jail there, Mr. Robinson said.

And the charges about wasteful spending and campaign contributions mattered to some but not most voters, Mr. Robinson said.

"Those were issues," he said, "that didn't move voters."

But Democratic strategist Mark Guilfoyle, a top adviser to Mr. Hughes, disagreed with the Republicans.

Mr. Guilfoyle said the Democrats' polling showed that in the last seven weeks Mr. Hughes nearly erased a 28-point deficit by hitting on the very issues the Republicans say were inconsequential to voters.

"The jail, taxes, wasteful spending - that's what moved the voters toward Patrick Hughes," Mr. Guilfoyle said. "That's how we ran the race in the final two months because our polling showed that's what mattered to voters. And I don't know how you argue that when you look at how far we came in such a short period of time.

"Basically, their strategy was to hide Dick Murgatroyd under a rock, don't let him debate, don't let him talk and hope like heck we don't catch them," Mr. Guilfoyle said. "That's almost a bunker mentality. And if the race lasted another week, we catch him and win."

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Kimmich conceded that Mr. Hughes did make the race close. But they attribute that to "negative" campaigning that was critical of Mr. Murgatroyd and not because the Democrats found issues that appealed to the electorate.

And besides, no matter what issues Mr. Hughes campaigned on he could not break through with Mr. Murgatroyd's hardcore support, found mostly in the heavily Republican suburbs along and near Dixie Highway and in the southern end of the county, Mr. Robinson said.

The Republicans also disputed Mr. Guilfoyle's comments about the Murgatroyd campaign, saying they were focused and poised to react in the final days.

Last weekend Democrats canvassed Crestview Hills, going door to door and accusing Mr. Murgatroyd of not doing enough to fight a power plant that had been proposed near the community.

"We had 17 people out the next day, knocking on the same doors and setting the record straight about Dick Murgatroyd's involvement in that issue," Mr. Kimmich said.

E-mail Patrick Crowley at pcrowley@enquirer.com




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