WASHINGTON – Pitching him as a young, energetic John F. Kennedy-esque congressional candidate was easy, but now supporters of Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway are trying to disentangle their man from his former boss' sex scandal.
And time is running short before Election Day against incumbent Republican Rep. Anne Northup in Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District.
Conway, 33, so far has run a competitive campaign against Northup, a tough fighter who has overcome serious competition before to seek a fourth term in the heavily Democratic district of Louisville and its affluent Jefferson County suburbs.
But when reports recently surfaced that outgoing Gov. Paul Patton was being sued by a former mistress who said he used the powers of the office to retaliate against her for breaking off the affair several years ago, Conway had to defend his own six-year position as one of Patton's right-hand men.
"You are trying to make this campaign against Paul Patton," Conway, Patton's deputy secretary of the executive cabinet and legal counsel, said in a debate last week. "I'm saddened by what the governor did; I'm disappointed. But Paul Patton is my friend, and this is one person who doesn't run from his friends when times are tough."
Republicans admit they are definitely trying to link Conway to Patton, and Northup has run television ads characterizing a close relationship.
“When he talks about why he should be elected, he talks about the fact that he was one of the top advisers for Paul Patton. It’s his claim to fame,” said Kentucky GOP Chairwoman Ellen Williams.
“We’re tying him to it,” she said, referring to Patton's downfall.
Terry Carmack, chief of staff for Northup, called Patton’s office “a scandal-plagued administration,” so there should be no question that a candidate who defines his career as being part of the governor’s staff should be required to defend it.
“He has to be in a position to defend himself,” said Carmack. “He set himself up to answer a lot of questions.”
It seems that the issue has managed to affect the polls. Where at one point Northup appeared vulnerable, polls are now showing her at a somewhat safer distance ahead.
"The Patton story does not help Conway in the least," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for The Rothenberg Political Report. "Just facing Anne Northup is proving to be a tough task for Democrats."
Northup, 54, however, has also been unable to avoid ethical scrutiny. In May, her office denied that ulterior motives guided her establishment of a non-profit corporation that steered $5 million in federal funds into Louisville’s west end neighborhood, a poor, black and politically vocal community.
The American Civil Liberties Union accused Northup of favoring faith-based groups to distribute the cash, excluding secular charities. Northup denied having any knowledge of favoritism in the organization.
Northup, who beat out freshman Democrat Mike Ward in 1996 to get her seat, was also forced to defend herself more recently against charges that she used her influence to get her husband's small business an ear with the Federal Communications Commission about a routine but delayed license.
“There was nothing gained by it,” said Carmack, who said the office just put Northup’s husband in touch with the right office at the FCC to ask about an application he had already filed but had been lost in the system. “If she had to do it over again, she would have her husband call the U.S. senator’s office there instead.”
Meanwhile, the issues in the 3rd District appear to mirror those pitting Democrats and Republicans against one another throughout the country. Conway, who lists education reform high on his list of achievements, has been pummeling Northup for her support of a plan to semi-privatize Social Security, her stand on prescription drugs and the economy.
“We're actually getting down to the economic issues,” said Jerry Johnson, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, who blamed Republicans in Washington for the onset of national deficits.
“The differences between [Northup and Conway] are really being noticed by the community on the pocketbook issues,” said Johnson.
But Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., pointed out that Northup, a former state representative and mother of six, has brought home federal dollars on the House Appropriations Committee, and earned support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“The reason she has done so well is that I think people recognize her commitment to serving them -- she’s got great credentials,” said Lewis. “I have watched her on the floor and when there is something to get done, she stays on it. No rest.”