Is GOP's Kentucky Win Shape of Things to Come in 2010?

“We won big in the special [election] in [Kentucky’s] 14th senatorial district in large part because our candidate tied his opponent to Pelosi, the Democrats in Washington, and their health care plan.”

That’s what State Sen. Damon Thayer told me last week as he prepared to join fellow Kentucky Republicans at their annual retreat.  In explaining why the Bluegrass State GOPers were so upbeat at the end-of-the-year conclave, Thayer referred to the much-watched special election December 8th won by conservative Republican Jimmy Higdon.

In defeating Democratic former State Rep. Joey Haydon, the 56-year-old Higdon, himself a state representative and grocery store owner, turned in a performance that was nothing short of sensational:  outspent by a estimated margin of 4-to-1 (Haydon spent about $2 million to Higdon’s $500,000), the conservative hopeful won by a handsome margin of 56% to 44%.  Moreover, while the district had been held for the past twenty years by a Republican (Dan Kelly, who resigned to accept a state judgeship), all five counties in the 14th District are controlled by Democrats and there are more Democratic officeholders in the district than Republican.

But in terms of national politics, Higdon’s linking his opponent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the national Democratic Party’s agenda was the most significant factor of all.  The obvious question, then, is whether Kentucky-14 is the Republican “dress rehearsal” for the 2010 midterm elections.

“There’s no doubt that nationalizing the race helped our candidate,” said Thayer,” “Tying Pelosi to the Democrat was potent and this could be a harbinger of things to come.”

Emerging briefly from the retreat to talk to me, Higdon said “we had a great team and in our commercials and brochures, we asked voters a simple question:  do you want one-party rule in Frankfort the same way we have it in Washington?” (With Democrat Steve Brashear in the governorship and Democrats holding the state House of Representatives by a margin of 65 to 34 seats, the senate had 19 Republicans, 17 Democrats, one independent, and the one vacancy that necessitated the special election won by Higdon).

The GOP underscored its point by running a commercial showing Democrat Haydon with Pelosi and warning that across-the-board Democratic rule in Kentucky could lead to programs such as the more statist health care program now being debated in Congress.

As Higdon recalled, “We asked ‘do you want the same in Kentucky as we have in Washington?  Do you want a bureaucrat to pick your doctor?”

By a large margin, voters in the 14th District said no.  As to whether this is a “dress rehearsal” for the 2010 elections, Higdon said: “I’m going to let the experts dissect that.  But I can say voters here are mad about what’s going on in Washington — mad as hell.”