By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
INDEPENDENCE - More than 26,000 registered voters in southern Kenton County are eligible to cast ballots in a Jan. 28 special state Senate election between Democrat Charles Wells and Republican Damon Thayer.
But fewer than 3,000 are expected to actually vote, says Kenton County Clerk Bill Aylor.
"It's hard enough to get people to vote these days," Mr. Aylor said. "But you're talking about a special election in January, when it's cold and a lot of people don't like to go out anyway, between two candidates, neither of whom is from here. I'll be shocked if we get more than 10 percent turnout. Shocked."
There are several factors expected to keep turnout low, including:
The election covers the 17th Senate District, which is a new state Senate seat carved out of legislative redistricting that state lawmakers approved last year. Because it is new many voters are probably unaware it exists.
While some statehouse campaigns, particularly those for the Senate, last for months, candidates for the special election were chosen about a month ago in party caucuses. The shortened campaign means people have less time to be exposed to the candidates and their messages.
Neither of the candidates is from Kenton County - Mr. Thayer and Mr. Wells both live in Scott County, north of Lexington - and neither has run for political office, meaning they are unfamiliar to voters.
While the district does include a sizable portion of Kenton County, it also includes all of Owen, Grant and Scott counties. That has stretched both candidates thin when it comes to campaigning in the sprawling district of nearly 70,000 registered voters.
The unfavorable political circumstances have left county clerks trying to get out as much information as possible about the election, and have left the candidates hustling to get their supporters to the polls.
"A race like this is all about turnout," said Kenton County Republican Party Chairman Greg Shumate. "Turnout is going to be extremely low, so you want to do things to get your people out to the polls. So for (the Kenton County GOP) that means a lot of grassroots campaigning, which we think we are pretty good at, things like door-to-door campaigning and getting information about the election and Damon Thayer to our voters."
Democrats, including members of organized labor, also are working the "grassroots" angle, said Jeanelle Fuson, vice chairwoman of the Kenton County Democratic Party.
"Labor is doing some phone banks, Democrats are going door-to-door and we're going to be campaigning for Charles at some senior citizen clubs and churches," said Ms. Fuson, who also serves as president of the Kenton County Democratic Women's Club.
Democrats also are encouraging people to cast an absentee ballot if they are going to be out of the county or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day.
Mr. Aylor, the county clerk, said voters can apply for an absentee ballot at the Kenton County Courthouse in Independence. Because the election is in the south end of the county, the Independence courthouse will serve as Election Day headquarters for the clerk's office, Mr. Aylor said.
"We usually use the main courthouse in Covington, but since the election is in the south end we're taking our operation out there on Election Day," Mr. Aylor said.
The candidates are making appearances in the region. Mr. Wells held a fund-raiser Friday night in Fort Mitchell and Mr. Thayer is scheduled to campaign in Independence this Friday with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Louisville Republican.
Both campaigns have television advertisements on ICN6 cable channels. And Mr. Thayer is running newspaper ads in the district that feature an endorsement from President Bush.
A total of 25 precincts are in the new Senate district. Many are located south of Interstate 275 along the KY 16 and KY 17 corridors through Taylor Mill and Independence and stretching into smaller, rural communities such as Piner, Bracht, Visalia and Whites Tower.
However, not included in the district is the large precinct along Hands Pike in south Covington.
The Kenton County slice of the district appears favorable for Republicans. In the November election, Kenton County Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd, a Republican, carried 22 of the 25 precincts in defeating Democrat Patrick Hughes.
Though only a portion of Kenton County is in the district, it actually makes up the largest block of voters, a total of 26,285. The remaining voters are in Scott County (22,188), Grant County (13,453) and Owen County (7,328).
County clerks in those counties are as pessimistic as Mr. Aylor when it comes to Election Day turnout.
"Turnout always depends on the weather, but I don't expect a good turnout even if we have good weather," said Grant County Clerk Judy Fortner. "I just haven't heard that much talk about the election. There are a few (campaign) signs around the county. And I know the candidates are trying to do all they can to get as many people to the polls as they can. But it's hard to get people excited about a special election in late January."
Owen County will have a "very light turnout because we don't have a local candidate in the race," said deputy county clerk Joan Kincaid.
Scott County expects a little better turnout that the other counties because both candidates hail from there, said county clerk Donna Perry. But she still would not venture an estimate on how many voters will show up to cast ballots.
"Too hard to say," Ms. Perry said. "You just never know about special elections."
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