7-Way Primary Divides Ky. Democrats
By Thomas B. Edsall
FRANKFORT, Ky.The Democratic Party has a lot riding on candidates like Eck Rose. He understands the land, guns and the courthouse and is among the last few Democrats able to slow the flood tide of southern whites to the Republican Party.
Democratic strategists see in Eck, as John Rose is known to friend and foe, the potential to bridge the gulf between the Bubbas of the back counties and the yuppies of Lexington. It was a trick that had been pulled off here in the 6th Congressional District by Rep. Scotty Baesler, who's now running for the Senate.
"Eck is pro-business, pro-gun and pro-choice, and we don't get many like that," a Kentucky Democratic operative commented in January, before things began to get complicated arguing that Rose could be the party's best choice to keep the 6th District seat.
Events sometimes trump strategy, and in this race with symbolic and practical significance, Rose has ended up in a dogfight of a Democratic primary that has highlighted both his own mistakes and the ideological and cultural fault lines within the party.
Kentucky has in recent years become a leader in the Republican realignment of the "peripheral" South the states surrounding the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia.
In a region where Republicans were often rare enough to be viewed as curiosities, the GOP now controls one or both branches of the legislature in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Republicans hold majorities in U.S. House delegations from Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Kentucky also is part of a region viewed as ground zero in the battle for the House where Democrats are trying to overcome a slim 11-seat GOP margin. Running roughly along the Ohio River Valley are a total of seven districts that are expected to be competitive in November: three here, two each in Indiana and Ohio.
Under the Democrats' most optimistic scenario, the outcome here would be a net pickup of two seats, while keeping the 6th District. Just to the north of here in Kentucky's 4th District, Democrats are banking on a man much like Rose and Baesler, county judge executive Ken Lukas, to win the seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Bunning (R), who is running for Senate.
As things stand now, however, Republicans are slightly favored to win in all three competitive Kentucky contests.
In the Lexington-based 6th, two of the most striking developments have been the steady erosion of Eck Rose's front-runner status and the emergence of ideological and cultural fissures within the Democratic electorate, forced to the surface by a seven-person primary that will be settled today.
Deposed from the presidency of the state Senate by an unprecedented alliance of Republicans and dissident Democrats in early 1997, Rose, a 57-year-old tobacco farmer and auctioneer who held power through three gubernatorial administrations, planned to start a new life as central Kentucky's representative to the U.S. House.
"I've been on the forefront of every major initiative that has been done in Kentucky in the last 10 to 15 years," Rose said in an interview. "I think most people would tell you I was a leader. I could still be president of the Senate if I wanted to be if I wanted to give Democrats within my own party, if I wanted to give them committee chairs that they didn't deserve. . . . There is a recognition by some people that doesn't go very deep that Rose can take pressure and he will make whatever decision he thinks is right and is not going to be intimidated."
Rose's decline was set in motion by his opening television commercial, tapes of which are quickly becoming collectors' items among aficionados of political miscalculation. The ad is narrated entirely by Rose's blond and beautiful third wife as Rose edges into the picture and sits down next to her on a couch, smiling at the woman who, at 36, is just one year older than his daughter.
One local critic said he first thought the ad was for a 900-number dating hot line. Another said the ad ran counter to Rose's popular image as "a man who speaks his own mind and doesn't have others do it for him." The commercial made even Rose supporters cringe.
More important, Rose now faces a serious challenge for the support of voters in his rural, good-old-boy base, and another candidate, state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, appears to be solidifying the liberal wing of the Democratic primary electorate in Lexington.
Bobby Russell, the Madison County attorney and Rose's rural challenger, contends "Eck has a very similar background to me. We are both hunters, we both believe in the right to bear arms, we both farm. Our mothers went to the Holy Lands together. The problem is Eck is in his fifties. He's had a good career, and now he's on the downside. I'm 45 and I'm on the upside."
Russell put himself on the map in the congressional race here, and in Washington, by opening his campaign with a television ad attacking independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for spending "five years and $40 million investigating the president" and established populist credentials with a sustained call for better protection of patients' rights when dealing with health maintenance organizations.
As Russell has eaten into Rose's base, Scorsone, a criminal defense and plaintiffs' lawyer, has increasingly secured his own liberal constituency, as his competitor, Lexington Vice Mayor Teresa Isaac, has faltered, with little cash to back her up.
Most of Scorsone's adversaries contend he is too far to the left for the district, but the affable, talented and polished campaigner has by all accounts become the front-runner in the contest that may well be won with 30 percent or less of the primary vote.
With Rose and Russell competing for the pro-gun, blue-collar, farmer, country store faction, and Scorsone edging out Isaac for the urban, Lexington-based wing of the party, the primary electorate is being further subdivided. Jonathan Miller, a former aide to Vice President Gore, whose campaign promise is to get felons and sex offenders out of public schools, is running as the Clinton-Gore "New Democrat." Attorney Jim Newberry, whose theme is "community, faith and family values," is the Democratic counterpart to a Christian Coalition candidate. And, finally, Scott Land, a ponytailed technical worker at a printing plant, has staked out his own version of Democratic libertarianism.
Whoever survives when polls close tonight faces a tough, uphill fight in the November election against expected GOP nominee Ernie Fletcher, a former Air Force pilot turned family practice physician who is widely viewed as a rising star of the Kentucky Republican Party.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company