Kentucky Dems Pin Hopes on Special Election

This bluegrass region, home to horse and tobacco farms, has a history of sending Republicans to Congress. Its previous congressman, Ernie Fletcher (search) — now governor of Kentucky — won every county in 2000 and 2002, and President Bush carried the state by 15 points over Al Gore in 2000.

This year, in a special election to fill Fletcher's seat, a Democrat just might win. Former attorney general Ben Chandler (search), who was beaten decisively by Fletcher in November, is leading in a short, intense race for that 6th District seat.

If he wins, it would be the first time since 1991 that Democrats have won a Republican-held seat in a special election.

Recent polls show Chandler ahead of his opponent, Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (search). Libertarian Mark Gailey (search) also is on the ballot, but trails significantly.

The district is conservative, and Forgy has tied herself to President Bush in some campaign advertising. But she trailed Chandler in a poll published last week — one that showed Bush with a high approval rating among likely voters.

Chandler began the race with an edge in name recognition. He was elected to statewide office three times — as state auditor and twice as attorney general. His grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was governor, a U.S. senator and commissioner of baseball.

For Ben Chandler, the stakes are high as he tries to make a comeback quickly after a bruising defeat.

"I think he has to win to have a career," said Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant in Richmond who worked for some of Chandler's past political rivals. "He rolled the dice after he lost the governor's race last November."

Republicans currently hold a 228-204 majority in the House, with a Democratic-leaning independent and two vacancies, including the one in the 6th District.

"The partisan divisions in the Senate and House are still pretty darn narrow, so every seat is significant," said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.

TV viewers have seen weeks of hard-hitting commercials paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The most-discussed ad showed Kerr strolling with Bush at the White House.

"It was not a coincidence," said Amy Walter, a political analyst who writes for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "I think the message was pretty clear: You all like the president, you like his policies, elect somebody who's going to do something with them."

Some questioned the commercial's effectiveness.

"With Democrats nationally beating up on Bush like they have been, it may not be as helpful as one would normally hope," said David Adams, Republican chairman in Jessamine County, south of Lexington.

The district that includes Lexington and the state capital of Frankfort is 60 percent Democrat by voter registration. But Fletcher carried every county in the 2000 and 2002 elections for Congress. Bush carried the state by 15 points over Al Gore in 2000.

In last week's The Courier-Journal's Bluegrass Poll of 466 self-described likely voters, 49.4 percent said they supported Chandler and 39.6 percent said they supported Kerr. Eleven percent were undecided. The margin of sampling error was 4.5 percentage points, indicating Chandler had at least a modest lead. The poll also showed 63 percent approving of Bush's performance as president.

Kerr has promised to vote to make Bush's federal tax cuts permanent. She accused Chandler of "waffling" on tax cuts, but Chandler insisted he never opposed them. He said they should have gone to everyone.

Chandler says Kerr would be a "rubber stamp" for Bush and is being "propped up" as a candidate by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who backed her for the special election nomination.

Kerr insists she is "someone able to stand on my own two feet."