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September 10, 2008

Palin power - Can a gun-toting female governor from Alaska help the Northup campaign?

Plucked from the wilderness as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin could be just the energy boost the Republican Party’s tepid election year needs — maybe. 

Not surprisingly, political adversaries disagree about whether the unexpected VP nominee will provide the necessary heat not only for John McCain’s lukewarm presidential bid, but for Republican campaigns on the local level as well.

Critics scoff at the choice as a transparent gimmick aimed at attracting women voters still chaffed over Hillary Clinton’s close defeat, dubbing the move a “Hail Sarah” pass. But some say the controversial selection might actually have an impact on local races, including the congressional rematch between popular first-term Democrat John Yarmuth and former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, a Republican. 

“It has galvanized our base,” says Brad Cummings, Jefferson County Republican Party chairman, when asked about the addition of Palin to the ticket. “There’s a large base of conservative Democrats in the district, especially the southwestern part of Louisville, and a lot of them are women.” 

During her acceptance speech last week, Palin was tenacious in attacking Obama, prompting comparisons to Clinton’s feisty pitch leading up to the May primary. By appealing to white, working-class women who are more conservative on issues like abortion and gay marriage and identify with Palin’s small-town narrative, Palin may crack the door open a little more for Northup. 

“Gov. Palin’s got appeal to those voters,” Cummings says. “Her story is our story and she does a great job of articulating our message.”

Not everyone agrees with that prediction. 

“That’s a bunch of smack talk,” says state Sen. Perry Clark, D-37. With the bulk of his district in southwestern Louisville — which Cummings identified as key to a Northup victory — Clark tells LEO Weekly he seriously doubts Palin will have an impact. 

“People in the South End are reality thinkers,” he says. “We’re concerned about food costs, jobs and gas prices. The Republicans, they’ve been running the country for the past eight years. We’ve had enough.”

It’s unclear how many Hillary supporters will vote Republican because of Palin, although a recent Gallup poll suggests 12 percent of Clinton voters are leaning toward supporting McCain instead of Obama.

The choice of Palin is exactly what some say the Republican Party needs to counterbalance the Obama mantra of change. Selecting her augments McCain’s maverick image, while wrapping a new ribbon around a tarnished GOP brand name that local Republicans hope will develop into a newfound affinity for the party and trickle down to Northup. 

“In an indirect way it bodes well for Anne,” says Ted Jackson, chairman of the Northup campaign. “It focuses on her as a female candidate with a similar narrative, plus incredible name recognition.” 

But that doesn’t mean Northup will shed the issues and simply appeal to girl power, according to Jackson, who promises the debate will become more extensive in the coming weeks.

“There’s a lot of buyer’s remorse,” says Jackson, pointing out that voters now can compare Yarmuth’s record in Congress with Northup’s 10-year tenure. Given Congress’ current low approval rating, Jackson says the contrast between the two candidates couldn’t be more striking. And just as Yarmuth tied President Bush’s unpopularity around Northup’s neck to unseat her in 2006, he believes this election will be a referendum on a “do-nothing” Congress.

“What this is going to come down to on Election Day is simple,” Jackson says. “Who better represents the majority view of this district? That’s the question we want on the voters’ minds.”

It seems little of Northup’s saber rattling on the issues — from gas prices to the bridges project — has gotten Yarmuth’s attention. Thus far, the Yarmuth strategy appears to be deafening silence. 

However, a Survey USA poll released Monday shows his lead has narrowed. Northup has gained two points since July, cutting Yarmuth’s earlier lead down to eight points. Another noticeable change is among white voters: In June, Yarmuth led among that demographic by seven points, but by July the two candidates were even. The September poll shows Northup now leads among white voters by three points, 51 to 48 percent. 

Just as some Republican strategists suggest the Palin pick will boost local GOP campaigns, having Obama at the head of the Democratic ticket is expected to bring out a record number of black voters nationwide and in Louisville, undoubtedly helping Yarmuth’s bid for re-election. According to the Survey USA poll, Yarmuth leads among black voters by 69 points.

The Obama campaign is not expected to spend much time in Kentucky leading up to the election, although Obama defeated Clinton in the 3rd Congressional District by eight points. As one of Obama’s earliest supporters in the Bluegrass who made several key appearances with him around the city, Yarmuth is primed to benefit as a congressional sidekick to an Obama presidency.