Sunday, November 10, 2002

Ky. Politics

McConnell turns his clout against some of his own


Northern Kentucky Republicans, be oh so careful about what you wish for.

The majority of GOP candidates, most GOP party leaders, activists and campaign workers, and certainly voters who backed Republican candidates were still taking some well-deserved bows earned on Election Night when ("Incoming!") U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell dropped one of those giant daisy-cutter bombs on the local political landscape.

The strike was launched on Geoff Davis, the Republican who narrowly lost Tuesday's Fourth Congressional District race to Democratic incumbent Ken Lucas, who is now 3-for-3 when it comes to beating GOP candidates in U.S. House elections.

Mr. Davis stood up on Election Night and, during an inspired concession speech, threw his hat into the ring for the 2004 race, which, if Mr. Lucas honors his pledge of serving just three terms, will be wide open and ripe for Republican picking.

After catching wind of the Davis speech, Mr. McConnell flew into action. By Wednesday morning, word was circulating that the senator - who racked up historic numbers in pummeling Democrat Lois Combs Weinberg Tuesday to win a fourth term in Washington - had his own guy for the race.

And that guy is Hunter Bates, Mr. McConnell's former chief-of-staff and the manager of his winning campaign over Mrs. Weinberg.

By Thursday night Mr. McConnell made the pronouncement - or should that be coronation? - official. He would be backing Mr. Bates in '04 for the 4th District seat. Tired of losing to Democrats in Northern Kentucky, a district that is more Republican than any other in Kentucky, Mr. McConnell figures it was time for the varsity to step in and get the job done.

Mr. McConnell's not-so-implicit message was that, while Mr. Davis was a good loser, he was still a loser. And apparently the senator has little faith in the GOP bench that had been testing the waters about a run for the seat in two years.

Many local Republicans were shocked. The Northern Kentucky GOP has always come out huge for Mr. McConnell, backing him strongly in every election he has ever run here and giving more than 70 percent of the vote this year.

But that is exactly Mr. McConnell's point. If the voters are supporting him, they should be electing a Republican to Congress.

And isn't this why Mr. McConnell is so successful, and why Republicans have not just supported him but also tried to emulate him when it comes to campaigns?

He is tough and focused with a take-no-prisoners attitude that has increased not just his own political fortunes but those of Republican candidates across Kentucky. One of the reasons Kentucky is now an "R" in presidential and most congressional elections is that Mr. McConnell paved the way for a GOP revolution in the state. He's done the same thing in the U.S. Senate, where he is about to be elected whip, one of the top three posts in the chamber.

For years I've listened to Democrats moan and complain about Mr. McConnell wielding his political muscle all across the state, including Northern Kentucky. It's fun to hear some Republicans making the same complaints.

Mr. Bates is no shoo-in. Few voters know him. He comes from the far western end of the 4th District, Oldham County, where he has lived for only a few months. And Mr. Davis is not backing down, vowing to keep his pledge to run even if it is against the handpicked candidate of the most powerful Republican in Kentucky.

Northern Kentucky Republicans helped give Mr. McConnell the considerable clout he now possesses. They shouldn't be angry, or even surprised, when he uses it - even if it's against them.


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