Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I Thought McConnell Made Candidates

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

In the final week of last fall's campaign, Congressman Geoff Davis turned loose an army of volunteers who charged through targeted neighborhoods, knocked on doors and burned up phone lines to make sure his supporters went to the polls on Election Day.

The get-out-the-vote effort helped transform what opinion polls had shown was a dead-even race into an impressive, eight-point victory for Davis. The question that some political operatives are now asking is whether Davis can - and will - fire up his troops again this year for one of the Republican candidates for governor.

All three candidates - incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher, former Congresswoman Anne Northup and dark-horse Billy Harper - have reached out to Davis and sought his advice on how to campaign in his conservative, voter-rich district. Davis has listened to each, offered suggestions and wished them well. But he has made no commitment to throw his support or his resources behind any candidate in the GOP primary, said his chief of staff, Justin Brasell. "We have supporters in all three campaigns, and Congressman Davis is listening and waiting and seeing," Brasell said.

GOP county chairmen contacted last week said they have seen no evidence that Davis is working behind the scenes for any candidate. "The indications to me are that he's just going to stay neutral," said Greg Shumate, chairman of the Kenton County Republican Party.

Likewise, Kevin Sell, GOP chairman for the 4th Congressional District, said he has seen no indication that Davis plans to support any candidate in the primary. "Conversations we've had have been about nothing more than, nothing less than neutrality," Sell said.

For Davis, the governor's race is a landscape filled with both possibility and peril. A two-term congressman who lives in Hebron, Davis is not that well known outside of his 24-county congressional district. Publicly backing a candidate for governor could broaden his influence by establishing him as a player on a bigger political stage.

"If he mobilizes everybody who worked for him in 2006 to go door to door, to use that same kind of methodology, he could really start to make an impact for whichever gubernatorial candidate" he supports, said Ryan Lee Teten, a political scientist at Northern Kentucky University.

The danger is that the candidate he picks could end up losing, Teten said. "Yes, he can really make a name for himself if he comes out in support of one (candidate) or the other," Teten said. "But the problem is if he endorses them and they lose, what does that say for his future elections and what does that say for his decision-making ability?"

Another risk is that, should he back a losing candidate, Davis might find himself at odds with the eventual winner and, in the process, might even alienate some of his own supporters.

Davis' predicament became even more problematic when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., of Southgate, publicly backed Northup late last month. If Davis were to come out in favor of Fletcher, he would be sending to his supporters a message that contradicts Bunning, a fellow Northern Kentuckian whom Davis has frequently cited as one of his role models. "You all want to be on the same page so it looks like the Republican Party in Kentucky has their act together and knows what they are doing," Teten said.

Given the risk, it's no surprise that Davis has decided to remain neutral, Teten said. "He's kind of caught between a rock and a hard place right now, and that may be why he's sitting this one out for a little while," Teten said.

Davis isn't alone. Of the six Republicans who represent Kentucky in Congress, Bunning is the only one so far who has publicly backed a candidate for governor. Bunning said he is supporting Northup because he thinks she has the best chance of winning in November. Sen. Mitch McConnell, considered the godfather of the Kentucky Republican Party, has said he has no plans to endorse a candidate in the primary, although he is believed to be backing Northup privately.

Brasell said Davis has a good relationship with Northup. The two served together in the House until Northup lost her re-election bid in November. "They worked together very well in Washington," Brasell said. "If she were to be elected governor, I'm sure he would work well with her then, too."

At the same time, "we've worked very well with the governor," Brasell said. Both Northup and Fletcher have made it no secret that they'd like Davis' support. Northup said during a campaign stop in Northern Kentucky last month that she and Davis have been "good pals" and that she hopes to tap into his get-out-the-vote effort.

"During the last campaign, Geoff Davis earned a national reputation as organizing quite possibly the best get-out-the-vote effort in the country," said Rick Robinson, one of Northup's operatives in Northern Kentucky. "Any candidate would be a fool to not want to have somebody like Geoff Davis on their team."

Fletcher also would be interested in taking advantage of Davis' vast resources, said his campaign manager, Marty Ryall. "Congressman Davis has quite a network up there, and I think anyone wants to do their best to try to tap into it," Ryall said. "We have a lot of support up there, so hopefully we will be able to."

Some insiders speculate that Davis may be waiting to see who emerges as the strongest contender and that he might then throw his support behind that candidate. Asked about that possibility, Brasell reiterated that Davis has made no commitment to any candidate: "He simply has just been reaching out to his supporters and listening to what they have to say about the race," Brasell said.

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