Politics & Government

Kentucky’s congressional elections unlikely to surprise

Kentucky’s six U.S. House races look all but decided with three months remaining until Election Day.

In the 2nd and 5th Congressional Districts, incumbent Republicans Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green and Hal Rogers of Somerset each has more than $1 million for their re-election campaigns. But they’ve already won. No Democrat is running against them.

Everywhere else, one side — usually the Republican — enjoyed a hugely lopsided cash advantage as of June 30. Democratic hopefuls in Western Kentucky’s 1st District and Northern Kentucky’s 4th District have little to no money. In Central Kentucky’s 6th District, incumbent Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, is sitting on $1.48 million, which is 22 times as much as his Democratic challenger, Nancy Jo Kemper.

Only in Louisville’s 3rd District is a Democrat — incumbent Rep. John Yarmuth — poised to win. Yarmuth has banked $460,229 to the $0 reported by his GOP opponent.

Idealists like to say that money doesn’t decide elections, but the truth is, it usually does, said Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University in Lexington.

“It’s a rarity to win if you don’t have a lot of money and your opponent does, especially if your opponent is an incumbent with widespread name-recognition and access to all of those special-interest donors who want to help him,” Dugi said. “You just get overwhelmed by all of the advertising from the other side. You never get a chance to get your message out.”

This isn’t news to Sellus Wilder, a Frankfort Democrat clobbered in this year’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary by millionaire Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who was much better-financed. Wilder is now managing Kemper’s 6th District House campaign.

“It was not lost on me that the election results from the Senate primary were basically all of our names in the same order as who had raised the most money,” Wilder said. “So Jim Gray was first, I was second, and on down the line.”

Money allows a candidate to hire campaign staff to reach voters on a personal basis across a large area, and it lets her promote her ideas through broadcast and digital advertising and social media, he said.

“And it’s the metric by which you’re deemed credible, or not, by everyone else — the news media, the party, other politicians, the donors. If you have some money, it’s easier to be taken seriously so that you can raise more money. But the reverse also is true if you don’t have very much,” Wilder said.

For all of the public debate over Congress — and its pitiful 13 percent job-approval rating as of last month — Kentuckians don’t show a great deal of interest in who speaks for them in the House of Representatives.

Only 44 percent of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot in a House race during the 2014 general election, when all six seats were contested, however weakly. Every incumbent was re-elected to another two-year term, including some, like Rogers and Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, who have spent decades in Washington.

Few vigorous House races are expected anytime soon. For one thing, the two-party system has eroded. Faced with Kentucky’s status as a deeply conservative red state, Democrats essentially have surrendered the congressional delegation, said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Kentucky Republican Party.

“The Democratic Party is on the verge of becoming a small regional party in Kentucky — a Louisville-Lexington, I-64 corridor party — where it just loses the rest of the state entirely,” Watson said. “I think the Democratic Party in this state, they’ve hesitated to take on serious issues and be bold with their solutions. And the way the national issues break has worked against them.”

The focus of the Kentucky Democratic Party on Nov. 8 will be preserving the narrow Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives, a crucial check on the power of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, said party spokesman Daniel Lowry. It’s not clear what help, if any, the party will be able to offer its congressional candidates who face an uphill climb, Lowry said.

“Definitely we still have hopes for them, especially for Nancy Jo Kemper in the 6th,” Lowry said. “If voters are at least able to learn who Nancy Jo is and hear about her record of public service and what she would do for them as compared to what Andy Barr has done, then I think she stands a really good chance.”

However, in 2014, the Kentucky Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington did not provide much assistance to Elisabeth Jensen, the Democrat challenging Barr that year. Barr outspent Jensen by $3-to-$1 and beat her by 20 points.

Once they are entrenched in Washington, congressmen enjoy a huge fundraising advantage that discourages most people from challenging them. Wealthy donors with an interest in favorable legislation and government spending line up to write them checks “because they’re a sure thing and a known quantity,” Dugi said.

For example, Barr, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks, payday lenders, investment firms and other businesses affected by his work. Roughly two-thirds of Barr’s campaign money so far this election cycle comes from outside Kentucky, including more than $600,000 from lobbyist-rich Washington and its suburbs.

Rogers, first elected in 1980, enjoys even greater fundraising clout as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which decides how the government spends its money. Rogers’ campaigns have raised nearly $11 million over the last 25 years, although he seldom faces much opposition in his Southeastern Kentucky district.

Voters choose the names they recognize and feel good about, Dugi said.

“When you’ve got someone like Hal Rogers, who has been there forever and who has brought so much pork back home … the chances of anyone coming in and beating him are slim to none. You’re not even really holding elections anymore,” Dugi said.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics