Bellweather race for Republican control of Congress

This is where it began for the Republicans in 1994, the year the GOP broke the back of 40 years of Democratic rule in Congress.

And if six-term Republican Rep. Ron Lewis loses in November, this district in western and central Kentucky — home to Fort Knox — will be one of the House races where it ends for the Republicans.

A dozen years ago, Lewis’ special election win in May foreshadowed the GOP onslaught that would occur in November when an unhappy electorate registered its displeasure, kicking out incumbent Democrats around the country and giving Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1954.

This year, the national mood is grim — only 26 percent of adults said the country is on the right track in the most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

“I think the country right now is at a real low point,” said Tim Kelley, a Republican from Cecilia, Ky., who hasn’t decided whether to support Lewis or Democratic challenger Mike Weaver, a retired Army colonel.

In a recent parade in Lewis’ hometown, the congressman rode in a convertible while Weaver, a veteran state representative who highlights his military background, occupied an old jeep, his hand resting on a mounted gun.

“I see as much disappointment in the administration right now as people had with the administration in 1994,” said Weaver, a Vietnam War combat veteran. “I see an opportunity here to turn this around and take it back.”

Despite the Democrat’s optimism, the conservative Lewis, a Baptist preacher and Christian bookstore owner, remains popular with many voters in his district. In recent elections, he easily captured more than 60 percent of the vote against token opposition. President Bush carried the district by a whopping 31 percentage points in 2004.

Lewis often has won the backing of Democrats, who outnumber GOP voters in a district that counts the birthplace of a famous Republican — Abraham Lincoln.

In fundraising, Lewis has a significant advantage, with slightly more than $1 million cash on hand to Weaver’s $335,000. Vice President Dick Cheney helped Lewis raise money during a July visit.

During the parade, Lewis’ hometown advantage was on display as cars, floats and fire trucks wound past homes with Lewis yard signs. Supporters like Brian Wombles had Lewis stickers affixed to their clothes.

“He has a lot of good morals,” Wombles said. “We’re just real proud of him.”

Wombles’ assessment of Bush, whom he voted for twice, was less enthusiastic: “A lot of things have happened on his watch. I guess he’s doing about as well as anybody else could.”

Lewis said he doesn’t see parallels between the political climate in 1994 and this year, arguing that Bush is more popular in the district than former President Clinton was 12 years ago.

“I don’t see an anti-incumbency problem here,” he said.

Scott Lasley, assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, says Lewis is considered the favorite and Weaver has to hope for a strong Democratic surge nationally.

“I think Weaver is still looking at the potential that if the right scenario emerges and there’s enough of a national tide, that there will be enough people on board,” Lasley said. “But I don’t think there’s any indication that a lot of that has happened.”

In a staunchly pro-military district, Weaver’s Army career is woven into his campaign. Bumper stickers tout “Col. Mike Weaver.” At the parade, supporters carried a banner that said, “Send Combat Veteran Mike Weaver to Congress.”

Weaver is critical of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and rejects the stay-the-course policy. The ex-Army officer favors a transition in which Iraqis shoulder security responsibilities, with a presence of U.S. special forces, logistical support and advice.

“We have to make an honorable exit from Iraq,” Weaver said. “You can’t just leave right now. … You have to phase that out. And you have to make sure they stand up their own army and their own police force to take care of their own country.”

Lewis, a staunch defender of the invasion, conceded that Iraq has become “a tough situation,” but he said it has become part of a broader conflict. “We are fighting terrorists in Iraq,” he said.

At the parade, as Lewis rode past and his wife tossed sweets to children, Tim Kelley gave a sour assessment of the country’s course, especially Bush’s Iraq policy.

“We’ve got soldiers over there getting killed every day and we don’t know exactly where we’re going with it,” he said.

Kelley said he knew of Lewis as a preacher and said he shares Bush’s social values, but his vote, for now, is up for grabs.

“Some of the Democrats don’t necessarily believe in what I believe in, but I would be willing to listen to what Mike Weaver has to say,” he said.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press.