Former state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) won a convincing victory tonight over state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) in Kentucky's 6th district, handing House Democrats their first victory in a Republican held-seat in a special election since 1991.
Chandler had 55 percent to Kerr's 43 percent with 100 percent of precincts in the 16-county central Kentucky district reporting.
The seat opened up after then-Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) won last November's gubernatorial race against Chandler.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) cast the race as a national referendum on President Bush and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
"Ben Chandler's victory in Kentucky tonight should send a clear message to the arrogant Republican government in Washington that Americans are ready for a change," Matsui said.
Other Democratic leaders said the victory proved that the South is fertile political ground for their party.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) called the idea that Democrats cannot compete in the South "Republicans' favorite new talking point," adding: "Ben Chandler won because he is the better candidate with a centrist message that resonates with voters."
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) congratulated Chandler while promising to mount a serious challenge for the seat in November.
"This district will remain competitive in the general election in the fall and we look forward to a vigorous race then and putting this district back into Republican hands," said Reynolds.
Both Kerr and fellow state Sen. Tom Buford (R) have filed for the November election. Chandler was the only Democrat to file for the contest.
Spin aside, Chandler's win provides a major shot in the arm for House Democrats demoralized by their six-seat loss in the 2002 elections.
Chandler entered the race with a significant lead over Kerr, largely the result of name identification built up through his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
Despite his early edge, conventional wisdom was that the momentum gained among Republicans from Fletcher's victory would simply carry over into the contest to replace him, which came just three months after the governor's race.
The district also appeared to favor Republicans as Bush would have won a 13-point victory there in 2002 and Fletcher had held it with seeming ease since 1998. Republicans were quick to point out, however, that registered Democratic voters outnumbered registered GOPers by more than 120,000.
Kerr's campaign was run by the organization of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), the architect of the Republican dominance in the Bluegrass State over the past decade, and heavily funded by House Members and GOP interest groups.
But some Republicans believe the second-term state Senator made a crucial strategic error in the campaign by attacking Chandler early on when she was barely known by voters in the 6th district, according to well-informed sources. That attack, in which she said the Congressional seat was a "consolation prize" for Chandler, damaged her credibility with voters, said the GOP sources, and rendered ineffective later jibes at Chandler.
Republicans rejected the idea being forwarded by many Democrats that Kerr's loss was tied to the president's recent slide in national polling, noting that internal GOP surveys showed Bush with a better than 60 percent approval rating in the district.
Kerr tied herself closely to Bush in the early stages of the campaign, running ads that featured the two of them walking outside the White House while a narrator said they were "cut from the same cloth."
After Bush decided not to make a campaign visit in the district on Kerr's behalf, her campaign moved from emphasizing her Bush ties to attacking Chandler as flip-flopper on important issues and a negative campaigner.
Chandler and the DCCC bashed Kerr for a vote that boosted her own pension and touted his credentials as an independent voice for the people of the 6th district.
Chandler's victory cuts House Republicans' majority to 12 seats. It also brings the numbers of vacancies in the House to one. A special election is set for June 1 to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow(R).
The Kentucky contest marks the first special election in 13 years where Democrats captured a Republican-held seat.
In June 1991, Massachusetts Rep. John Olver (D) defeated former state Rep. Steven Pierce 50 percent to 48 percent in a race caused by the death of Rep. Silvio Conte (R).