By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 21, 2006
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky., Sept. 20 -- Mike Weaver, age 67, is a former Army colonel who said he knows what war is about. He'll tell you that if you ask, or if you don't. In fact, he rarely goes more than a few sentences without mentioning his military career. He's eager also to share his views on abortion rights: opposed. Or gun control: opposed. Or same-sex marriage: very much opposed.
Weaver is the Democrat in Kentucky's 2nd District. At first blush, that might seem like an advantage. There are 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in these precincts, home to tobacco fields and Fort Knox, south of Louisville. But for the past 12 years a good many of these Democrats have been happy to vote again and again for one of the most reliably conservative Republicans in Congress.
Rep. Ron Lewis, who used to own a Christian bookstore, has won seven straight elections -- most times without breaking a sweat.
Weaver is doing his best to make Lewis sweat this time. Weaver's campaign revolves largely around convincing even his fellow Democrats that he is conservative enough.
This is one of the places where the "Republican Revolution" began in 1994 -- before then, Democratic representative William H. Natcher held the seat for 40 years -- and it is a good window into whether the GOP reign will end in 2006.
It is also the first stop in The Washington Post's nine-day trek through nine congressional districts that sit on the dividing line between the upper South and the industrial Midwest. There is no place outside the Ohio River Valley where so many competitive districts are clustered in an unbroken line.
The aim is to capture the 2006 campaign -- its characters, issues, back stories -- at eye level, touring 500 miles of main roads and less-traveled paths through Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Even in a year buffeted by unease over the Iraq war and other national issues, many competitive races are shaped by local twists. There is the Democratic candidate who worries that a decades-old high school basketball rivalry could cost him the election, and a Republican hopes to turn local pork-barrel spending into political gold.
And there is Kentucky's 2nd, where Weaver, a state representative, is running not only against Lewis but also against long currents of political history. Natcher, who as Appropriations Committee chairman prided himself on the bridges and highways his political clout made possible, was a beloved figure right up until his death in office in March 1994. In the special election to replace him, Lewis hit hard on President Bill Clinton's unpopularity in the district. At the time, Lewis's victory was seen as something of an aberration.
It was really an omen. That November, a generation of Southern Democrats were tossed out of office by voters turned off by their affiliation with a national party that was far more liberal than their districts.
The Democratic plan for reversing the past here and in similar districts centered on recruiting candidates who sound like Republicans, at least on social issues. A military background was a big bonus.
Enter "the colonel." At least that's what Weaver's aides always call him. In addition to his military record -- the Weaver Web site says he knows "what it means to defend our freedom on foreign soil" -- he prominently mentions his faith (Roman Catholic) and his family (11 grandchildren). In a campaign headquarters a stone's throw from a mobile-home dealership where doublewides are on sale, Weaver looks fit and angry enough to jump back into the trenches at any moment. He boasts that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Weaver is the only Democratic candidate who intimidates him.
He casts a skeptical eye on the out-of-town reporters who come to interview him. But then he turns his ire on Democrats for allegedly surrendering the political war over values they should be winning. "We have allowed them to steal from us without challenging it at all that they are the party of faith and family values," he said of the Republicans. "One of the first things we need to do is change that, because I think that is absolutely absurd."
But Lewis said Weaver cannot escape association with his party.
"If you look at the national Democrat party and their platform, the Democrats of the 2nd District do not line up with that," he said.
Lewis spokesman Michael Dodge said he does not dispute that Weaver is as socially conservative as the congressman, but he warns that once in Washington the colonel would be taking orders from liberal leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Those are fighting words in these parts, where Christian singer Michael W. Smith can be heard singing praise and worship songs on the radio at Chick-Fil-A.
The district, which President Bush won with 65 percent of the vote in 2004, is a string of rural farming communities interrupted only by towns such as Elizabethtown, population 23,000. The Kentucky 2nd is anchored by Elizabethtown in the north, Bowling Green in the south and Owensboro in the west.
The area is in transition. Tobacco farmers are converting to soybeans and corn. Military life is changing, too. Fort Knox, the Army base that drew thousands of military personnel to Radcliff and turned them into lifelong district residents, survived the most recent round of cutbacks but lost its armor school, which trains personnel for armored warfare.
The latest change is that the district is once again an interesting place to watch an election. The Republican congressman this week aired campaign commercials -- the first time a challenger has forced him to do that in eight years -- and he plans to spend well over $1 million to defend his seat.
Given the scant difference on social issues, Lewis is taking aim at Weaver over tax cuts. In one of the new ads, Lewis warns that Weaver would vote for tax increases as he did several times in the state assembly. "That voting record doesn't line up" with traditional values, Lewis said. That he is going negative this early suggests Weaver's internal polling -- showing the GOP lead in single digits -- might be on target.
Weaver, in an interview, concedes that he would support repealing the Bush tax cuts that benefit the richest 1 percent of taxpayers, but he refused to detail any specifics. He walked a similar line on the Iraq war. He criticized Bush's planning and execution of the war, and he demanded that the president put forth a plan for withdrawal, but he has not backed any timetables himself. And, no matter the question, his instinct is to turn the conversation back to his biography.
"My faith and values were taught and nurtured in my home," he said, "then taught and nurtured in the school system, which happened to be a Catholic school. It was also taught and nurtured in a church -- and confirmed in a foxhole. That is my faith and values, and I match that with anyone."