WASHINGTON — The contest in Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District pits a well-funded, conservative incumbent against a little-known, considerably more progressive Iraq War veteran.
U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, seems to be sailing toward a fourth term with $1.1 million raised as of the June campaign finance filing deadline. Much of that money was donated by health professionals and the insurance industry.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger John Waltz, a political newcomer from Florence, raised roughly $250,000 during the same period.
Waltz was inspired to run for the congressional seat, he said, after he received no help from Davis' office in seeking veteran's health benefits.
"After I came home from the war, I became ill with the anthrax vaccination," Waltz said. "I couldn't get any help with the Veterans Administration. Couldn't get help with Geoff Davis' office either. I was just trying to get things as simple as transportation."
In 2007, Waltz told National Public Radio that he ended his military service in 2005 and suffered constant seizures, which made driving tough. He sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Department of Veterans Affairs, with little luck.
Ultimately, Waltz said he called "my old admiral," U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Penn., for help.
"He made a phone call and, within two to three hours later, there was a VA bus at my door," Waltz said.
Davis disputes his opponent's version of events.
"Congressman Davis' office did extensive work to assist Mr. Waltz," said Davis spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. "He falsely claims we did not help him. We have an extensive record that will be made available to the public if he signs a privacy release so the truth can be told."
In the meantime, Davis has taken to the airwaves in an ad that points to his own military experience as a West Point graduate and an Army Ranger who served in the Middle East during the 1980s. In the ad, Davis promises to "defend our freedom — this time, against an overreaching government."
Though Davis sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, he keeps a relatively low profile. Davis sponsored three pieces of legislation last year and co-sponsored 98 bills.
In 2009, he sponsored a measure that called for congressional approval of major executive branch rules before they take effect. The legislation has languished in the Democratic-led House.
His conservative views on social issues, tax cuts and the Iraq War are popular in the district, which includes the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati and stretches from just east of Louisville to Ashland. Davis won his last election in 2008 with 63 percent of the vote.
Davis once sat on the Armed Services Committee and the Financial Services Committee and tucked more than $8.2 million in earmarked defense and military construction projects into the 2010 budget.
As debate over Democrat-backed health care reform roiled Congress and sparked heated debate this year, Davis saw a dramatic uptick in donations from the health care industry. During the course of his legislative career, he's received more than $600,000 from the health industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
His top donors for this election cycle include Humana Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Still, those donations pale in comparison to $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the financial-services sector — an industry Davis has criticized for receiving government bailouts.
Waltz, 33, and the father of four daughters, might not have Davis' political background, funding or governing experience, but he said what he lacks in elected experience he makes up for in a clear-eyed connection to the issues that matter most to voters.
Though he does have the support of the state party, his campaign has largely been grass-roots and hands-on — the same kind of work he committed to as founder of Severus Worldwide, a non-profit that helps rebuild hospitals in Iraq.
"I served with John during deployments in Afghanistan, and I am impressed by his commitment to serve our nation abroad and here at home," Sestak, the Pennsylvania congressman who is engaged in a tight U.S. Senate race, wrote of Waltz in an endorsement. "Too often, our nation sends young soldiers off to war but denies their needs when they come home. I saw John fight the Veterans Administration and government for the help he needed, and I believe John knows that all Americans and all veterans deserve to be treated with respect and to be heard by their representatives."
Waltz said he knows what it's like to be the little guy fighting the system. While wrestling with the Department of Veterans Affairs over his own health benefits, his wife lost her job with an insurance company after she developed health complications from being hit by a drunken driver.
"We need some more honest voices that have dealt with these issues personally," he said.