Franklin County

State Democrats try to figure out what went wrong

FRANKFORT — As Democratic candidates rolled to victory Tuesday in many other states, those in Kentucky did little more than tread water.

Although the party successfully defended all its incumbents, it lost a hotly contested U.S. Senate race and an open congressional seat and failed to even dent the Republican Party's stronghold on the state Senate.

"It's disappointing," said Kim Geveden, a Democratic campaign consultant. "Let's just say change swept across America and it skipped over Kentucky."

Still, Kentucky Democratic officials have tried to positively spin Tuesday's election results. They note that many of the states, such as North Carolina and New Hampshire, that saw Democrats win key races were places where Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama fared well.

In Kentucky, Obama lost to Republican John McCain by 17 percentage points.

"In the face of a landslide vote for Sen. McCain ... we were able to re-elect our two Democratic congressman, I believe we increased our numbers in the (state) House by one to go to 65 and we held all of our seats in the state Senate," said Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. "I think under the circumstances, that's pretty good."

Democrats had hoped for more.

Democratic candidate Bruce Lunsford started out as a long shot to unseat U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, but as the national economy tanked, so did McConnell's poll numbers. Lunsford and national Democrats spent more than $10 million combined on commercials but they couldn't topple McConnell, who ended up winning by more than 100,000 votes.

"It seemed to me the Lunsford campaign had to spend so much time and money on McConnell — either responding to the attacks or tearing McConnell down — it made it so difficult to establish with voters the positive aspects of why he would be a good United States senator," said state Auditor Crit Luallen, who last year passed on challenging McConnell.

The party also had its best shot in more than a decade to recapture the 2nd Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis chose not to seek re-election.

Democratic state Sen. David Boswell of Owensboro started out better known, but Republican state Sen. Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green worked harder to raise money. Even though Boswell eventually received help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Guthrie ended up cruising to a win by 6 percentage points.

The 2nd District was held for 40 years by Democratic U.S. Rep. William Natcher. But since his death in 1994, it has been one of Kentucky's most reliably Republican-performing regions, especially in federal races.

Boswell's loss could signal that Democrats might never win the district the way it's currently drawn, with conservative areas such as Barren, Warren, Butler and Hardin counties.

"I'm not sure what our strategy needs to be to recapture that seat. David was an excellent candidate," Luallen said.

State House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he didn't think the seat was permanently out of reach for Democrats, because the party would have won it if Obama had fared better in the district.

In that west-central region and farther west, Democrats also made strong bids to pick up state House and state Senate seats.

Their only success was the capture of an open seat in Logan and Todd counties that had been held for 14 years by a Republican.

Four days before the election, House leaders laid out ambitious goals, including knocking off Republican Rep. Steve Rudy of West Paducah in the 1st House District, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 20,814 to 5,432. They failed.

Democrats also lost their open 3rd District seat in Paducah in a close race.

Still, Richards said the election should be considered a success for Democrats because they had a net gain of one seat to bolster their majority to 65-35. "The House is the state office that is closest to the people, and we continually gain numbers," Richards said.

In the state Senate, where Democrats remain the minority, the party made strong bids to unseat Republican state Sen. Ken Winters of Murray and to take the open 9th Senate District in south-western Kentucky, but it fell short.

Geveden, the political consultant, said Democrats must assess what went wrong.

"To me, it seems like one of the weaknesses is in their ability to match the Republicans at micro-targeting voters," he said.

The state GOP has successfully sought out solid GOP supporters and swing voters through mail and personal visits, while the Democrats have relied on a shotgun-type get-out-the-vote effort in state legislative races.

Geveden said Beshear did his job for the party by helping to raise money, and that both the state Senate and House caucuses were well-funded. Still, he said, the party must reassess its strategies and overcome a "lack of organization and lack of a coherent message."

"We all have to do a better job, myself included," said Geveden, who worked with several state legislative candidates.

After all, economic turmoil and an overwhelming belief among voters that the nation is on the wrong track should have reinforced Democrats' message for change up and down the ballot, Luallen said.

"In some of these cases, we clearly didn't do a good enough job," Luallen said. "People chose the Republican over the Democrat in areas where you would assume we would have a natural advantage given the economic situation."