By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 25, 2006
RICHWOOD, Ky. -- In a colonial mansion on a hill, a silver-haired Southern gentlemen named Ken Lucas is looking to rise to power. Again.
Two years after leaving Congress -- at the time, he was certain it was for good -- Lucas is back, asking some of Boone County's richest doctors, lawyers and businessmen to help finance a political resurrection. "If I am lucky enough to go back -- and with the grace of God, we might get there -- we will do the right thing," he promised a gathering of local elites at the home of millionaire philanthropist R.C. Durr and his wife, Deborah Jo Durr, on Saturday night.
Lucas, 73, is a courtly and conservative Southern Democrat seeking to oust Rep. Geoff Davis (R) in Kentucky's 4th Congressional District. Lucas, who held this seat from 1998 until his retirement in 2004, is also one of nine Democrats in key House races making another run at a Republican they challenged at least once before.
They are the do-it-again Democrats, a key to their party's strategy of winning back the House.
The Ohio River Valley is full of them. Across the river in Ohio, Democrat John Cranley is running in the 1st District against GOP Rep. Steve Chabot, who beat him six years ago. In neighboring Indiana's 9th District, former Democratic congressman Baron Hill is challenging Rep. Mike Sodrel, who beat him by about 1,400 votes in 2004. (That race was itself a rematch: Hill had defeated Sodrel in 2002.) Also in Indiana, Joe Donnelly is seeking a do-over in the 2nd District against GOP Rep. Chris Chocola, who defeated him in 2004.
These Democrats are banking on their experience and name recognition -- some voters mistakenly think they won last time -- to reverse their fortunes. But recent history is against them. Since 1996, only three of the 33 challengers have won rematches.
Here in the booming suburbs of Cincinnati, Lucas, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Grant County, is running like he never left Congress. "Return Ken Lucas to Congress" billboards are ubiquitous. The not-so-subtle purpose is to present Lucas as an incumbent who deserves another term.
Sitting in the living room of the mansion, as Democratic donors swirled around him, Lucas said many voters believe he ran and won in 2004. "It is the same old drill," he said. "I know what to do and how to do it."
His connections have helped him quickly raise more than $1 million and jump out to an early lead in public polls.
Davis is no stranger to rerun candidacies. After taking 48 percent against Lucas in 2002, Davis announced his plans for a rematch on election night. Davis, a former Army Ranger, said his military buddies joked: "You didn't lose -- you just got recycled."
He never got the chance to test himself against Lucas, as the Democrat decided against seeking a fourth term. "Walking away from a fight is called losing," Davis taunted.
With the incumbent gone, Davis easily beat Nick Clooney, father of actor and sometime-activist George Clooney, and seemed ready to hold this district for the foreseeable future.
Then along came Lucas -- again. Unlike any other challenger Davis could have drawn, Lucas is well known and harder to paint as an out-of-touch liberal, which is the chief reason party officials aggressively recruited him late last year.
At the annual pig roast for Boone County Sheriff Mike Helmig, Davis said Lucas lacks one big ingredient: the power of real incumbency. Over the past two years, Davis said he has focused on building a "world-class" constituent services operation that includes five field representatives catering to voters' needs. Responsiveness keeps residents happy, and happy residents reelect incumbents.
It also loosens party allegiance among local officials, who tend to be driven more by results than raw partisanship. Witness Davis's new television commercial touting the endorsement of Covington Mayor Butch Callery, a Democrat who calls the incumbent a "great guy to have in Congress." Incumbency has other residual benefits, most notably money. In 2002, Davis raised $870,000; he has already collected more than $2.5 million for this contest.
The district has changed in Lucas's short absence. The Cincinnati suburbs across the Ohio River are the fastest-growing part of the state, as new developments balloon with residents benefiting from an economic resurgence. Boone County has added 11 to 13 residents every day over the past three years, Helmig says -- many of whom have presumably never heard of Ken Lucas.
The growth has helped transform a Democratic stronghold into Bush Country. President Bush won the district with 63 percent of the vote in 2004. Jim Creevy, who manages Lucas's campaign, said, "Bush is popular, very popular."
It would be foolish for Lucas to run against Bush, as many other Democrats and even some Republicans are doing this election cycle. "That issue just doesn't play here," Creevy said. "In this district, everyone is pro-life and pro-gun."
With similar views on many issues, Lucas campaigns as a voice of independence, a wealthy, grandfatherly figure who is not in it for the power or the prestige. Noting Davis's record of backing GOP leaders 96 percent of the time, he said, "You can send a robot to vote the party line."
His pitch is for more of an attitudinal change than a substantive one. He promises to ask tougher questions about Iraq, though he does not demand a quick withdrawal. He promises to support socially conservative views, even when this means voting against the rest of his party.
But his greatest asset in 2004, Lucas said, is familiarity: "These voters know me."
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.