The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Rush Limbaugh picked up the theme the next day. All based their claim on Republican ads that tried to link Democrat Jodie Haydon with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of which ridiculously claimed that Haydon was "ready for Nancy Pelosi to choose your doctor."
Republicans pointed to Gov. Steve Beshear's excuse, that the GOP had nationalized the race. But crediting the other side's strategy and tactics can downplay the blame earned by your own.
As someone who lived in this district for nine years, my guess is that Higdon's most effective ads were those that said he would "protect the unborn, traditional marriage and the right to post the Ten Commandments," and that used a video clip of Haydon saying that the state needs to "tap every revenue stream," casting him as a taxer during a bad recession.
Haydon tried to tap today's strong current of fed-up populism by criticizing "higher budgets and more perks" for legislators in Frankfort, but as Republican strategist Scott Jennings wrote after the election, "those ads were run-of-the-mill." And when Haydon, like Higdon a Catholic, claimed he didn't get the Right to Life endorsement because he's a Democrat, the anti-abortion group ran a newspaper ad showing how he had not voted its way when he was a representative.
Though Higdon was badly outspent, because of ads financed by racetrack interests, he and his party allies had enough money to get their messages out. For the tracks and their allies, the law of diminishing returns may have had double effect; their ad blitz drew more attention to their involvement and could have turned off voters who resent interlopers.
Republicans' nationalization strategy, aside from the specifics of health care, did make sense, and did appear to be effective. This was a special election, where a low turnout was expected, in a district where President Barack Obama got less than 38 percent of the vote last year. Republicans wanted this election to be dominated by the other 62 percent, people who hadn't had a chance to cast a vote since the last one and didn't like that result.
But why use Pelosi, whom many in the district couldn't identify, rather than Obama, who is almost universally known? Higdon, a state House member and longtime grocer in the Marion County seat of Lebanon, knows his people, and he didn't want to give the president's backers a reason to go to the polls. Last year 19,464 people in the district voted for Obama; the special election drew only 20,208 voters.
In Marion County, being a Democrat is normally a big advantage, but not when you're a popular grocer named Jimmy Higdon. His neighbors stuck with him; 34 percent went to the polls, well above the overall 24 percent turnout. Haydon's home Nelson County, which has many relatively new residents who don't know him, turned out only 23 percent.
McConnell argued after the election that the victory was telling because the district is "three to one Democratic," but his figures and his conclusion were both wrong.
Among registered voters in the district, there are only 2.2 Democrats for every Republican, less than the statewide ratio, and the significance of party registration has been declining for decades.
The 14th Senate District has trended Republican since its 1990 election of Dan Kelly, whose resignation to accept a judgeship from Beshear opened up the seat.
Haydon, of Bardstown, was succeeded in the House by a Republican, the other House member who lives in the district was first elected as a Republican, and the other counties in the district are represented by Republicans.
One reason for that trend is Kelly, who made many Democrats comfortable voting for a Republican after they abandoned his Democratic predecessor, fellow Springfield resident Ed O'Daniel. But the district also reflects the trend that has made the state more Republican since 1993.