FRANKFORT, Ky. – Republican leaders who had prepared for the worst in Kentucky's midterm congressional elections ended up losing only one House seat on Tuesday, hanging on to two others that Democrats had pushed hard to win.
U.S. Rep. Anne Northup lost the seat she had held for the past 10 years to Democrat John Yarmuth on Tuesday in a race where the war in Iraq loomed as the overriding issue.
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Two other Republican incumbents — Reps. Geoff Davis and Ron Lewis — were able to overcome strong challenges in their northern Kentucky and western Kentucky congressional districts.
Kentucky Republican Party Chairman John Brock said Northup's loss was disappointing, but winning the other races was a clear victory for Republicans.
"If Democrats can't make hay in this climate, I have no idea when they can make hay," Brock said. "They have to feel pretty demoralized right now."
In the final weeks of the campaign, Northup had called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation for his handling of the Iraq war. Yarmuth, a former newspaper columnist, charged that Northup was simply trying to distance herself from the Bush administration's "failed policy" in Iraq.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Yarmuth had 122,425, or 51 percent of the vote, to Northup's 116,535 or 48 percent. Two other candidates split the rest of the vote.
"I'm going to go home, get some sleep, and be with my kids," Northup told supporters after her concession speech. "I learned this year that there are worse things than losing an election."
Northup's 30-year-old son died earlier this year.
Northup campaigned with Bush in her 2002 race, but with Kentucky polls showing the president's approval rating at 40 percent in the Louisville area, she had tried to distance herself from him this year.
Northup has faced close elections before, winning the seat by fewer than 1,300 votes when she was first elected in 1996. In her last race, she defeated Democrat Tony Miller by more than 73,000 votes. Voter registration in the 3rd District favors Democrats over Republicans by 263,000 to 150,000.
Hundreds of screaming Yarmuth supporters gathered for the victory speech of the first Democratic congressman elected in the Louisville district in a decade.
"When I go to Congress, my vote — our vote — will never be for sale," Yarmuth said, referring to a campaign pledge not to take money from political action committees.
In northern Kentucky, Davis held off a strong challenge from his Democratic opponent, Ken Lucas, in a contentious and expensive race. Combined, they spent about $5 million, not including the cost of a slew of television ads paid for by national political committees. Lucas left Congress two years ago to fulfill a term limits pledge.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Davis had 100,681 votes, or 52 percent, to Lucas' 84,456, or 43 percent. Libertarian Brian Houillion had 9,508 votes, or 5 percent.
Lewis, a Baptist preacher, won his race against Democratic state Rep. Mike Weaver, who touted his credentials as a Vietnam War veteran and retired Army colonel, in Kentucky's 2nd District, home to Fort Knox.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Lewis had 109,270 votes, or 56 percent, to Weaver's 87,396 votes, or 44 percent.
Elsewhere, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield won a seventh term over Democratic challenger Tom Barlow in western Kentucky's 1st District.
Whitfield has held the seat since 1994, when he defeated Barlow, then the incumbent, in the Republican revolution that changed the balance of power in Congress. In doing so, Whitfield became the first Republican to hold the seat since the Civil War.
Barlow, who served one term in the House, operated his latest campaign on a shoestring budget but was considered enough of a threat to draw a series of attack ads from the 12-year incumbent.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Whitfield had 123,676, or 60 percent of the vote, to Barlow's 82,948, or 40 percent.
Facing token opposition, U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers and Ben Chandler also won re-election.
Rogers, a Republican icon in Kentucky's mountain region who has served 26 years in the House, defeated Democrat Ken Stepp in the 5th District. Chandler, a Lexington Democrat completing his first full term, defeated Libertarian candidate Paul Ard in the 6th District.
Kentucky was a battleground in the fight for control of the House.
Burdened by an unpopular president and an unpopular war, Republican incumbents faced an uphill battle, said Michael Baranowski, a political scientist at Northern Kentucky University, and Democratic candidates hammered away at both. Bush had "a significant and largely negative effect," Baranowski said.
Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Kentucky History and Politics, said neither party can claim huge victories in the state.
"I think both parties can come out of it feeling at least somewhat positive about it," he said.