Tuesday, November 26, 2002

U.S. Rep. Lucas considers switch to Republican party

Conservative Democrat wooed to cross aisle

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT MITCHELL - Kentucky 4th District U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Democrat who votes like a Republican, is considering switching parties and joining the GOP.

Top congressional Republican leaders are courting Mr. Lucas, 69, a Boone County Democrat elected to a third term Nov. 5. Among those wooing him are Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority whip, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

And for the first time, Mr. Lucas says he's thinking about it.

Mr. Lucas issued a statement Monday indicating he is considering becoming a Republican.

"I will spend the coming days visiting with my friends, family and 4th District voters in order to make an informed decision about my future," Mr. Lucas said.

"This speculation about party-switching is nothing new," he said. "It is the same old song, third verse. There has been talk about this for several years now."

While the Republicans have made overtures toward Mr. Lucas after each of his previous election victories in 1998 and 2000, this is the first time he has publicly acknowledged giving consideration to switching parties.

That could be because Republicans are working hard to entice Mr. Lucas across the aisle. He met with Mr. Hastert this month and talked with Mr. McConnell Sunday on the phone.

"The Republicans and Mitch McConnell are definitely making another run at Ken Lucas," said Edgewood lawyer Mark Guilfoyle, a Democratic Party strategist who often advises Mr. Lucas.

"But Ken Lucas has consistently said he is comfortable being a conservative Democrat and that he will only serve three terms," Mr. Guilfoyle said. "I believe that Ken Lucas is a man of his word and a man of integrity."

Mr. Lucas has said he will serve only three terms, opening speculation that he may break that pledge if he switches parties.

Boone County Republican Geoff Davis, who lost to Mr. Lucas on Nov. 5, said he believes he could beat Mr. Lucas in a GOP primary.

"I would respect any move he wanted to make, because it's a deeply personal decision for a person to make," said Mr. Davis, who received 47 percent of the vote on Election Day.

"I believe we could win a primary ... but based on his term-limit pledge I'll be very interested to see what Ken is going to do," Mr. Davis said while attending a Kenton County GOP dinner Monday night.

Adding further intrigue is the involvement of Mr. McConnell, who has been touting his own campaign manager and former chief-of-staff, Hunter Bates, to run for the Fourth District seat in 2004.

Mr. McConnell could not be reached to comment Monday night.

Mr. Lucas is the only Democrat in the eight-member Kentucky congressional delegation, which was once nearly all Democratic as Kentucky voted with the "solid South."

Northern Kentucky Democratic Party leaders said Mr. Lucas gives the party one of its few local strongholds, which they would hate to relinquish to the GOP just weeks after retaining the seat in a hard-fought battle.

"Ken has said many times he will not switch and I would have been very disappointed if he did," said Boone County Democratic Party Chairman Howard Tankersley, a lawyer who lost the county attorney race to Republican J.R. Schrand

"We don't need this right now," he said.

Boone County has the most registered Republicans of any county in Kentucky, with Democrats retaining only a slight majority in registered voters in Kenton County. In Campbell County too, voting trends are showing an increase for the Republican Party.

Kenton County Democratic Party chairman Nathan Smith said there is no reason for Mr. Lucas to switch parties because he has been successful in a congressional district where Republicans typically run strong. President George W. Bush, for instance, carried the district by 16 percentage points in the 2000 election.

"Why would you give in after beating the Republicans three times?" Mr. Smith said Monday. "The people of the 4th District love Ken Lucas and his independent thinking. Ken does not give in to political pressure from either party."

Nonetheless, in the Nov. 5 election, Mr. Lucas, a Boone County native, failed for the first time to carry the three Northern Kentucky counties.

The 4th district stretches over a 22-county region of Northern Kentucky from the suburbs of Louisville to the West Virginia line.

Mr. Lucas is part of a coalition of conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. He has voted with Mr. Bush and the Republicans on tax cuts, foreign trade agreements, spending bills and other legislation.

His voting record is among the most conservative in Congress.

He also was critical of his fellow House Democrats for recently electing U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal lawmaker from California, as Democratic leader.

Jeff Middendorf, a lawyer and member of the Kenton County Republican Executive Committee, said he believes that even though Mr. Lucas is a Democrat he would be welcomed into the GOP.

"Even by considering this, it's clear Congressman Lucas is realizing the national Democratic Party's principles don't reflect the views of the people of the 4th District," said Mr. Middendorf, as assistant Kenton County attorney. "I think the Republicans would welcome him should he ever choose to switch."

Rick Robinson, a Kenton County GOP strategist, lost the 1998 4th District Republican Primary to former state Sen. Gex (Jay) Williams, who eventually lost to Mr. Lucas in the general election.

"I've been wanting this seat to be Republican since the day I lost the primary," Mr. Robinson said Monday.

"And I would welcome Ken Lucas to the party. My only question would be, `What the hell took him so long?' "

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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