Thursday's vice-presidential debate will bring home the race for the White House in a way area candidates for local and state office rarely have to contend with, or capitalize on, depending on how you look at it, during the stretch run of a general election.
With Mitt Romney polling ahead of President Barack Obama by as many as 14 points in last month’s Courier-Journal/SurveyUSA poll, it would appear the groundswell for the national ticket might make it difficult for the Democrats.
Kentucky voters, though, have a rich recent history of going Republican in national races, while maintaining their Democratic registration and choosing Democrats down the ticket.
The most hotly contested on local ballots is the 54th District state representative race between Republican incumbent Mike Harmon and Democratic challenger Barry Harmon, the Boyle County jailer. The district includes Boyle and Washington counties.
Both men are following activities surrounding the vice-presidential debate and the national chatter about presidential politics, but each sees the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and the many surrogates for the presidential campaigns differently.
Barry Harmon knows the last time the state went for a Democrat was for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996, but he believes voters are used to splitting tickets. He said he is not running away from Obama, insisting he’s only focused on issues like the financial survival of counties.
“I think people make that distinction in the booth locally about what’s best for them and their family,” Barry Harmon said. “The president’s got his race to run, and I still have to look out for folks at the local level. I don’t get caught up in that. Person-to-person, face-to-face politics is the way it is around here and probably always will be. I’ve had good response from Democrats and Republicans, and I think people are ready for a change.”
Democrats appear to have targeted Mike Harmon, and the current jailer has been an active campaigner.
Barry Harmon raised about $20,000 to Mike Harmon's $7,750 according to financial filing reports from the 32-day period following the primary election. The deadline for the 32-day pre-general election reports passed Oct. 5, and a five-day grace period ends today.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon concurs that voters are savvy enough to go beyond the national races. He said candidates aren’t being encouraged to embrace or distance themselves from Obama and Biden, though some have chosen to.
“I support the president; the governor has stated his support for the president,” Logsdon said. “There are things we disagree with him on, but we are supporting the president.”
Logsdon said the party can increase its presence in the state House of Representatives and make headway in the Senate. In addition to the 54th District state representative race, he believes Democrats will win seats in places like Bardstown, Paducah and Winchester.
“We are very confident about a number of races, and we are not laying back and playing defense, hoping to hold on,” Logsdon said. “We are taking the races to the Republicans in many of these districts, and we are going to win a lot of them.”
Logsdon didn’t mince words in characterizing Mike Harmon as an ineffectual lawmaker who “ought to pick up his paycheck with a mask on.”
“Mike Harmon has a deplorable record in the state House,” Logsdon said. “You just have to look at the fact he has never sponsored a piece of legislation that has been signed in to law.”
Mike Harmon has sponsored legislation, including one in the last regular session that would change the gubernatorial primary process and allow candidates to wait longer before declaring their running mate. That bill stalled in committee.
He has been elected several times now in a district where only 30 percent of the voters are registered Republicans. He knows many center-right Democrats lament having to maintain their Democrat affiliation for lack of GOP candidates and thinks the defection will be even greater this time.
Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said the momentum for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could help, but it is an overall disaffection with current politics and policies at every level that has a greater potential to carry many of the party’s candidates into office.
“There are a lot of voters in Kentucky who are very open to hearing ideas from candidates, and I think a large part of it is their frustration with Obama’s inability to move things forward,” Robertson said. “What we are seeing across Kentucky is many non-Republican voters are looking for new ideas from our other candidates in a lot of races, not just the Romney campaign.”
Robertson said the party has targeted many national and state legislative races, including the brutal 6th District U.S. representative race between Democrat incumbent Ben Chandler and Republican challenger Andy Barr, who lost out two years ago by barely 100 votes. Through redistricting, the 6th no longer includes Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties, which all went for Barr in 2010.
It still doesn’t hurt to have someone with a double digit lead and a big “R” next to his name drawing people to the polls. “In all of these races, the president is going to be a factor,” Robertson said. “And not to the benefit of the Democrats.”
While he knows there aren’t many yards with Obama signs planted next to his own, Mike Harmon believes at least “5-10 percent” of Obama’s supporters also will vote for him. He thinks the Republican Party has a legitimate chance to take the state House.
With the governor and national dignitaries coming to Danville from far and near, it is a rare opportunity for local candidates to hitch their stars to some political names in a public way.
Barry Harmon said he likely will watch the vice-presidential debate at home and then head out for any functions the local or state party has planned. He will spend the day going door to door, which he and his wife have done for most of the last few months.
Mike Harmon will be part of some of his party’s festivities throughout debate day, including a Rally around the Candidates hosted by 2nd District U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie and some of his friends from the Kentucky congressional delegation Thursday afternoon at the Community Arts Center in Danville. He also will speak at an event the Family Research Council is hosting at Constitution Square Park.
Mike Harmon said he isn’t sure if he will find a seat in the debate hall and likely will press the flesh at the Debate Festival on Old Centre’s lawn if he does not.
Details of any post-debate festivities are being held under wraps so far, but both Democrats and Republicans figure to hold their own political parties following the event.