WASHINGTON – In winning a special election in conservative Kentucky, House Democrats employed a quiet, targeted campaign to turn out thousands of voters eager to "send President Bush a wake-up call," a tactic they hope to duplicate in key races this year.
"There's a very strong anti-Bush electorate that we can go after and animate, even in the most Republican of districts," said Jim Bonham (search), executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"They can change the outcome of an election dramatically."
Democrat Ben Chandler (search), who led in the polls throughout the campaign, defeated Republican State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, 55 percent to 43 percent, on Tuesday in a race to fill the House seat vacated by Republican Gov. Ernest Fletcher (search). The campaign marked the first time since 1991 that Democrats have won a special election for a seat formerly held by the GOP.
Even so, Republicans hold a House majority of 228-205 with one Democratic-leaning independent and one vacancy.
House Democrats, eager to end nearly a decade in the minority, claim the Kentucky election shows they can win seats long in GOP hands. Republicans argue the race portends no national shift. They contend the victory belongs not to Democrats but to Chandler, who they say was a strong candidate despite losing the gubernatorial election a few months earlier to Fletcher.
"There's a big difference between him (Chandler) and Stephanie Herseth," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Herseth is the Democratic candidate in the next struggle between the two parties - a June 1 election for a seat in South Dakota that Democrats also hope to take away from the GOP.
More broadly, Forti added: "Turnout operations are usually only successful when you have candidates. And Democrats are very short on candidates who have money."
But Bonham noted that Forgy Kerr ran a campaign commercial that said she and Bush were "cut from the same cloth" in an obvious attempt to ride his coattails to victory. Given her defeat, he said the DCCC hopes to recreate a "micro-strategy" of motivating anti-Bush voters in other districts.
In Kentucky, the DCCC used mass mailings that included unflattering photographs of the president and questioned whether he was able to "grasp the truth" about the economy as a whole and job losses in Kentucky in particular.
"Send President Bush a wake-up call. Vote Democrat," the pamphlets said.
The central Kentucky district supported Bush in 2000, sent Fletcher to Congress three times and supported him in his gubernatorial campaign. The congressman before him was a conservative Democrat.
Bonham said phone calls and personal canvassing helped to "agitate and animate" about 30,000 anti-Bush voters, particularly in the campaign's final days. No television commercials were used for this purpose, for fear of motivating the president's supporters to vote in greater numbers and swamp Chandler.
In keeping with a new federal law, the DCCC ran its operation independently of Chandler's campaign. The tone of the anti-Bush effort marked a contrast to an overall strategy that refrained from criticizing the president or promoting Chandler's Democratic credentials.
Chandler's own television commercials stressed that he would be an "independent and effective" member of Congress, and touted his accomplishments as attorney general and state auditor.
The two-track strategy, Bonham said, raised Chandler's vote totals in targeted areas well above what a Democrat could expect to receive based on historical trends.
Republicans and Democrats alike have long used polarizing political figures of the other party to try to motivate their own voters.
And while Bush's support nationally declined over the period of the brief campaign, Republicans argue that Kentucky election was not an overall reflection on his popularity. Rather, they said, last week's race was decided largely on local issues and Forgy Kerr hurt her own campaign through strategic errors.
One of Chandler's own campaign aides also said the DCCC effort didn't tip the balance in the race, although he said similar efforts could prove vital in the future.
"It's not like there was some incredible swing in votes that was strictly affected by turnout," said Jason Ralston, Chandler's media adviser. "That said, in a close election turnout matters, and had this thing gotten closer, it could have mattered."
Bonham said dislike of Bush among a portion of the electorate was evident throughout the campaign.
As an example, he said the commercial linking Forgy Kerr to the president was a mistake. Polling recorded a spike in her unfavorability ratings in the days immediately after the ad began running.
But Republicans familiar with the campaign argue that Forgy Kerr's ratings dropped because of a different commercial that ran at about the same time.
This one said a seat in Congress should not be a consolation prize, an obvious slap at Chandler, whom polls showed was well-regarded by voters despite his defeat in the gubernatorial race.