Tight Contests Seen in 3 States
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 1998; Page A04
After primaries in Kentucky this week and in Ohio and Indiana earlier this month, battle lines have been drawn in the cluster of eight congressional districts surrounding the Ohio River Valley the largest concentration of competitive districts in the nation.
This area is ground zero for Democrats if they are to win back control of the House in November. The eight seats are evenly split between the two parties. While all eight races are tight contests, the results of the primaries may lead observers and strategists to conclude at least at this moment that the odds slightly favor a one-seat Republican pickup.
Three of the contests will pit the Republican right against the Democratic left. Another will test the viability of a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights an endangered species in the GOP. Two races will determine whether pro-gun, antiabortion Democrats can win in Kentucky, a state moving steadily toward the Republican Party.
Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a political consultant, helped two conservative Republicans win contested primaries against establishment Republicans in Indiana and Kentucky. In November, these candidates will help determine whether the Christian Right message is a benefit or a liability in a general election.
In the one of two open-seat primaries in Kentucky, Republican voters in the 4th District nominated state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams, a rising star of the Christian Right, as their candidate to succeed Rep. Jim Bunning (R), who is running for the Senate.
Williams who was supported by such conservative luminaries as Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, William Bennett and James Dobson swamped Rick Robinson, a party activist and former Bunning aide, despite Bunning's endorsement of Robinson and a highly publicized visit by Robert J. Dole on Robinson's behalf.
Democrats were delighted to see Williams win the primary, believing he is the more vulnerable of the two. The Democratic candidate, socially conservative Boone County Judge-Executive Ken Lucas, is expected to try to portray Williams as an extremist.
"My history is one of coalition building and working within the community," Lucas said in an interview. But he faces an uphill fight in a district that backed Dole over President Clinton by nine percentage points.
Williams said his views mesh with "the mainstream of the voters of the district."
In a sign of the campaign ahead, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declared: "The Ralph Reed-Gary Bauer victory in the nomination of ultra-conservative Gex Williams will translate into a Democratic victory."
Just to the South, in the Lexington-based 6th District being vacated by Rep. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), Democrats picked state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, the most liberal of seven competitors. Baesler is running for the Senate against Bunning.
Scorsone, a good campaigner, faces a tough adversary in another good campaigner, Ernest Fletcher, a doctor and former Air Force pilot with ties to social and Christian conservatives.
Scorsone won the Democratic nomination with just 24 percent of the vote, suggesting that he has a lot of work ahead to build his base in the district that backed Clinton over Dole by just one percentage point, or 2,106 votes.
However, Democrats in Louisville selected a social conservative former Attorney General Chris Gorman, a pro-gun, anti-abortion rights candidate to oppose freshman Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.). Gorman's primary race has left him with only $30,000 to $40,000 in the bank, according to his campaign manager, while Northup has about $700,000.
The Louisville 3rd District is the most Democratic-leaning in the state Clinton defeated Dole there by 13 points. Northup barely won the seat in 1996 by a margin of 1,299 votes.
But she is considered a strong campaigner and a highly effective fundraiser who has been strengthening her suburban base.
The strength of Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism will be most directly tested in the Scorsone-Fletcher contest in Kentucky, once a stronghold of the New Deal coalition. But as voters here have prospered, the area has become increasing Republican.
There are parallel ideological struggles in nearby Ohio and Indiana.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who was elected as part of the 1994 GOP revolution, thrives on polarized political fights. He has already challenged his opponent, liberal Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, to a series of debates. Chabot is intent on raising issues from partial-birth abortion to tax policy in his reelection bid.
Similarly, in Indianapolis, GOP challenger Gary Hofmeister, a Reed client, has declared that he is a "pro-life, pro-family, pro-strong-national-defense, pro-tough-on-crime conservative." His manager, Mike Young, has said that when Rep. Julia Carson (D) won in 1996, "Reagan Democrats didn't have a choice. We are going to give them every reason to switch [to the GOP] this time."
In Indiana, former state senator Baron Hill (D), who was handpicked by retiring Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) to run for his seat, is currently favored over Republican opponent Jean Leising. But the district has been moving toward the GOP in recent years, and in 1996 Clinton won here by less than a percentage point.
To the west of the Hamilton district, Rep. John N. Hostettler (R), who won the seat by a four-point margin in 1994 and won reelection by two points in 1996, faces Evansville council member Gail Rieken, who has been able to raise unexpectedly large amounts of money.
In the southeastern corner of Ohio, Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, the only abortion rights moderate Republican among the ground zero GOP candidates, is seeking to oust Rep. Ted Strickland (D) in a district that has switched back and forth in every election in the 1990s. Hollister, who won only a plurality in her primary a majority of votes were cast for two antiabortion conservatives must mend fences on her right flank before she will be fully equipped for the fray.
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