- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From the direct-mail literature featuring picture after picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you would have thought Jimmy Higdon was running for Congress in last week’s special election in Kentucky, not a state Senate seat.

But Mr. Higdon’s 12-percentage-point victory over Democrat Jodie Haydon on Dec. 8, in which the Republican ran squarely against “Nancy Pelosi’s one-party rule,” has Republicans eagerly talking about the prospects of nationalizing next year’s midterm elections.

From the floor of the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Higdon survived being outspent in a district in which Democrats have a strong registration advantage by running against the California Democrat who heads the House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on health care.

“He had one message. One message. Oppose the Reid bill, oppose what Pelosi is doing, oppose what the Democrats in Washington are doing,” Mr. McConnell said last week.

Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said party officials saw “a substantial shift” in voter sentiment in the district once the House passed its version of a health care overhaul in early November.

“It was something we could look at and see, and it was breathtaking,” he said.

He estimated that the state party included pictures or references to Mrs. Pelosi on about 50 percent of the campaign mail it sent out and said voters understood the dangers of one-party rule in Washington and in the state capital in Frankfort.

Democrats, however, said Republicans have tried the anti-Pelosi strategy before with little success, including in last month’s special congressional election in upstate New York. The Republican Party fumbled that race after nominating a liberal Republican who, facing a challenge from a Conservative Party nominee, dropped out of the race and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens.

Mr. Owens narrowly won the race, in which independent conservative groups tried to portray him as a rubber stamp for Mrs. Pelosi.

Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Republican Party’s losing streak in special congressional elections — it has lost five contested races in a row — should have taught them that running against Mrs. Pelosi on the national level is money poorly spent.

“National Republicans need every penny to defend their desire to return to the failed Bush policies that left the economy in shambles, but they also need to defend an electoral strategy that failed in 2004, 2006, 2008 and just last month in a special election to fill a congressional seat that had been Republican since the 1800s,” Mr. Rudominer said.

Barbara Hadley Smith, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said reading national implications into the state Senate race was “a bit of an overreach.” She said the conservative bent of the district and Mr. Higdon’s local popularity mattered as much as any other factors.

“Did they nationalize the race; did it have some impact? Yes. But there were a number of factors that went into this race. I don’t think it has national implications,” she said.

Joseph Gerth, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote on Monday that the national-referendum theory overlooks the importance of voter-turnout operations in special elections and said Republicans had a strong local organization. He also said the pro-life movement managed to dent the Democrat, a major factor in the heavily Catholic district.

Before every congressional election, both parties argue over whether it will be a national election, decided on big overarching issues, or a local election in which candidates run on more parochial concerns. In 2006, Republicans thought the midterms would focus on local issues, and they lost big — ceding control of Congress to Democrats in the process.

Republicans now say the Kentucky election, coupled with last month’s two Republican gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey, suggest a national strategy can work for them in 2010.

The Kentucky state Senate seat came open when Gov. Steve Beshear named the incumbent, Republican Sen. Dan Kelly, to a judgeship. Mr. Beshear hoped Democrats would win the seat, which would have helped erode Republicans’ Senate majority in Frankfort and made it easier to advance a proposal to allow electronic slot machines at horse-racing tracks.

The racing industry poured money into the race to back the Democrat. Mr. Robertson, the state Republican chairman, said early calculations show that the Democrats and their allies doubled Republicans’ spending.

But the Higdon campaign ran hard against the national Democratic Party, and the move paid off.

The strategy included using Mrs. Pelosi in a television advertisement and in direct mailings that tied Mr. Haydon, the Democratic candidate, to the speaker. “Pelosi and Haydon don’t share our values,” read one mailing, while another said, “One-party rule in Kentucky will lead to a big mess - just like Nancy Pelosi’s Washington, D.C.”

Mr. Robertson said they tested how well Mrs. Pelosi played in the district and said the attitude was clear: “She doesn’t need to buy a vacation home in Kentucky.”

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