WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Ken Lucas may have kept his term limit pledge two years ago by quitting Congress, but the Democrat is back now and wants to reclaim Kentucky's 4th District seat from his Republican successor, Rep. Geoff Davis.
This toss-up race isn't the first time the two met — in 2002, Lucas fended off a challenge by Davis, winning 51 to 48 percent.
“I think this race is interesting because the district, as its clearly shown in history, is willing to vote for members of both parties. You have a Republican who currently represents the district, and a Democrat who used to represent the district,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the election tip sheet, the Rothenberg Political Report.
“It is clearly one of the top races in the country,” he said.
Davis is a former Army Ranger and technology consultant who in 2004 handily beat the star-power of Nick Clooney, a local news personality and father of actor George Clooney. He says he’s worked hard to keep this seat and long ago surpassed Lucas' lackluster record in office.
“I think that there is a profound contrast between my legislative record and that of my opponent,” Davis told FOXNews.com. “If you work hard you can get things done."
The National Republican Congressional Committee is not as subtle in its assessment.
“I don’t think it’s as competitive as Democrats want you to believe,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for the NRCC. “Voters in Kentucky have to ask why they would want to return a crippled show horse to Congress when they already have an effective workhorse representing them."
Democrats, on the other hand, like to apply the ago-old political phrase “whistling past the graveyard” when it comes to such Republican bravado. They argue the GOP is merely trying to mask its fear of what could be a massive wave against Republicans in November.
“There is conventional wisdom on the other side that this is a Republican district and that this district loves George W. Bush. That was true about six months ago,” said Mark Guilfoyle, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist who claims a combination of the war in Iraq, slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina and a lackluster economy has sharply turned the tide against the president and GOP, even in this very conservative district.
“People in the 4th District are fiercely independent,” Guilfoyle said. “On the other hand, Davis cast his lot with George Bush.”
Davis and his supporters say he can transcend these criticisms — which have been lobbed against most if not all Republican incumbents in this year’s midterm election — by pointing to all of the work he has done throughout the term.
“We went to work the day after the election. I began working with elected officials to get things done for Kentucky," said Davis, who boasts he has not only worked on the local level for community investment and grants, but on Capitol Hill, introducing legislation for military families, rural housing and tax cuts.
“He is a leader and a listener — a representative interested in results and outcomes, not in politics and pettiness,” said fellow Kentucky Republican, Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers.
Davis points to “dramatically improving” constituent services in the district, which is comprised of affluent suburbs and cities stretching along the Indiana and Ohio borders as well as a university town and rural, coal-mining communities.
Greg Shumate, chairman of the Kenton County Republican Party, said Davis’ hard work, combined with hefty fundraising in this cycle, has given him the advantage over Lucas. The 4th District sits in the very expensive Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky media market, so any candidate here needs a lot of cash to get his message across. According to reports for the quarter ending Sept. 30, Davis had $1.6 million in cash on hand, whereas Lucas had $381,248 available.
“I think Geoff Davis is going to win and he’s going to win by the same margins he did the last time,” said Shumate.
Still, polls show a mixed bag. The most recent survey, conducted by Zogby International for Reuters on Oct. 2, shows Davis leading 42 to 36 percent over Lucas. A September poll by SurveyUSA had Lucas beating Davis 48 to 44 percent.
Libertarian candidate Brian Houillion is also running in the race and is hoping to draw his own share of conservative votes on Nov. 7.
Lucas’ campaign is working off a template that says Davis’ legislative record is not going to impress anyone.
“We are sick and tired of a do-nothing Congress and the partisanship,” said Jim Creevy, manager of the Lucas campaign. “And everyone knows that Lucas’ record in Congress was one of a bipartisan member who worked on the issues that were important to people.”
Lucas, who supporters say is still popular in the district, was known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House when in office. He was first elected in 1998, and is an abortion opponent and supports gun rights.
He and Democrats slam Davis for opposing legislation that they say would have put a cap of 36 percent on interest rates for short-term payday loans to military service members. The Pentagon had accused lenders of exploiting troops as they set up shop around military bases throughout the country.
“I think that’s a good example of how (Davis) is not in step with the district and what their needs are,” said Allison Haley, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Democratic Party. “I think he has made some missteps.”
But Davis has said the legislation was largely a knee-jerk reaction that could lead to a larger problem, driving payday lenders out of business while forcing customers to take money from more predatory lenders who could put military men and women deeper in the hole.
Davis said he offered his own proposal for regulations to curb predatory lending, including prohibiting lenders from garnishing wages or collecting debt while a borrower is overseas. Davis recently sponsored legislation, which President Bush signed into law in September, protecting military families from fraudulent insurance policies. On a separate issue, back in April, he sponsored a bill to require the ethics committee to conduct regular ethics training for House representatives.
Mark Nickolas, a Democratic activist in Kentucky and host of the Bluegrassreport.org, said negative voter sentiment this November is sure to trump any laundry list of legislative accomplishments that Lucas can pull out in the waning weeks of the election.
“My sense is, there is a feeling, a sentiment, that things are going on the wrong track, and I don’t think that you get back on the right track just by passing legislation,” said Nickolas. “Davis would have to do something to address the palpable anger here.”