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Candidates Make Final Push to Fellow Republicans at Covington Dinner

A political party once relegated to the sidelines in Kenton County now dominates nearly every corner of government in Kentucky's third largest county.

The Kenton County Republican Party celebrated its current status as top dog during its more than four-hour Spring Fling dinner in Covington on Thursday night. But being the only game in town, at least on next Tuesday's primary ballot, has come with a cost.

Two win in Kenton County, being a Republican is a natural advantage these days.

In November, anyway.

In May, the party finds itself so strong, such a shoo-in at general election time that the real competitive races emerge as intra-party squabbles, some meaner than others, in the spring.

On Thursday, small doses of salt were poured in the wounds of a party in need of healing itself to rally behind its primary election winners who will lead next year as well as others, such as the GOP's US Senate nominee, who face another battle yet.

"We need to have a vigorous debate," said party chairman Greg Sumate to the more than 250 people gathered in the grand ballroom of the Radisson Hotel on Thursday. "We need to talk about who our candidates are going to be. But after the voters tell us, let's all get behind our candidates in the fall and let's all unite to support the Republican candidates."

The room applauded the remarks then watched a video from US Senator Rand Paul.

Elaine Chao, former US Secretary of Labor, spoke on behalf of her busband, US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who could not attend. McConnell, if victorious on Tuesday in his primary against Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, could be elevated to Majority Leader should enough of his fellow Republicans win Senate seats across the country.

"With Mitch as Senate Majority Leader, Obamacare is not going to be a done deal," Chao promised. "It will be voted on again and again, as long it takes to undo that presidential promise."

Bevin did attend and his passionate supporters showed their enthusiasm for his, his wife's, and his nine children's presence. They did the same on Friday by holding Bevin signs at the corner of Pike Street and Madison Avenue in Covington where McConnell spoke to the Covington Business Council's monthly luncheon.

"Will a handful of individuals choose for us who our next elected official will be?," Bevin asked the room. "If we allow that to be the case then we would never have had a Senator Rand Paul because that's not who the Party chose for us. We would never have a Congressman Thomas Massie because that's not who the Party chose for us."

Bevin noted McConnell's absence. "It's not good enough to come around once every six years and be your friend, to show you the scorecard and how we voted."

Brad Copas, another candidate on the Republican side for McConnell's seat, also appeared in Covington on Thursday. He stated his platform as one that aims to increase trade between the United States and its neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico.

Polls show McConnell is likely to win by a large margin to face likely Democratic nominee, current Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Uniting Republicans behind McConnell's hope for a sixth six-year term in Washington is a goal of the local party. The task could prove to be more difficult after the local races, though. The bitter primary in 2010 between Steve Arlinghaus and then-deputy Judge-Executive Scott Kimmich is often cited as much of the reason behind the current frequent squabbles between members of the all-Republican Kenton Co. Fiscal Court.

Four years later, the party finds itself in the midst of another competitive primary for the county's top job in a race between Arlinghaus and Kenton Co. Commissioner Kris Knochelmann.

A recent poll conducted by the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Association indicated that the race was right with a whopping 20% of likely GOP primary voters undecided. Arlinghaus and Knochelmann made one final push on Thursday to the last high profile official Republican gathering before Tuesday's vote.
 
"I promised everyone that I would give you good government," Arlinghaus said. "That's the only promise I offered anyone. Folks, I'm here to tell you this evening, I have fulfilled that promise."

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Steve Arlinghaus/RCN
 
The incumbent then delivered some of his regular highlights: that a $2.5 million annual budget deficit was eliminated, and that the golf course is not losing money like it was, and that he quelled swollen overtime costs at the jail, a number he once put at $80,000, a claim that caused a public dispute between the judge and Jailer Terry Carl.
 
"I've been corrected since then," Arlinghaus said. "It was $79,600. In December and in the month of November."
 
Carl could be seen shaking his head as quiet snickering emerged from a few corners in the room.
 
Arlinghaus addressed the situation at the CVG Airport Board where he appoints all the voting members to a body that is currently being examined by the State Auditor's office for its spending practices. The board's chairman, vice chairman, and a third member resigned. Arlinghaus said that the chairman, who had a public dislike for the airport's CEO, was appointed by the previous judge-executive. Meanwhile, the airport is improving, Arlinghaus said. There are more low-cost flights and a new chairman of the board.
 
But in a room full of hundreds of Republicans, a reference to President Ronald Reagan is a sure homerun. Knochelmann took a swing.
 
"There he goes again," Knochelmann said, a nod to Reagan's line "There you go again" to then-President Jimmy Carter during a 1980 presidential debate. Knochelmann has discounted Arlinghaus's claims of budget deficits and more throughout the campaign.
 
A Knochelmann administration will stand on Republican principles of sound fiscal management and integrity. I will always tell you the truth. The whole truth," he emphasized. "There was no mess to clean up, by the way. I'll work cooperatively without blaming anyone in the past."
 
The two-term county commissioner laid out his Republican bonafides: he active in the party since he was 19.
 
"Well before it was popular to be Republican in Kenton County, so many of you worked to defeat Democrats and build this party," he said. "That example has kept me involved ever since."

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Kris Knochelmann/RCN

Knochelmann is a fan of noting Arlinghaus's previous experience of serving as a county commissioner from 1999-2002 as a Democrat. He has received the endorsement of several previous judges-executive.

"They all know the options you have in this race," Knochelmann said. "They realize my opponent was a long-time Democrat in the Reagan, Bush, and even in the Clinton years."

Candidates for the three seats that will make up the fiscal court with the judge-executive also spoke. Taylor Mill Mayor Dan Bell, who is challenging incumbent Beth Sewell in District 1, said he would be persistent in fighting for the county locally and in Frankfort, that he favors a collaborative approach to combating the regional heroin problem, and that he would advocate for the rural southern end of the county. Sewell shared stories from the campaign trail and joked that she has only had to fire her husband-campaign manager five or six times. 

In District 2, incumbent Jon Draud said he wants to be reelected to help Arlinghaus but said that he would not be a puppet, something he said he was called on Knochelmann's website. Draud's opponent, political newcomer and Piner resident Amy Heeger said she wants to be a strong voice for the south county.

Ft. Wright Mayor Joe Nienaber and businessman Joe Koester are vying for Knochelmann's open District 3 seat. Koester, a first time candidate but long time political donor, said that politics should be removed from government while Nienaber described himself as a terrible politician but a good leader. "There is room for politicians and there is room for leaders in the Republican Party," Nienaber said.

Some of the down-ballot races provided an opportunity for humor.

"The big reason I'm in this race is because before I filed and another opponent filed, there was only one candidate on the ballot and it just didn't seem fair to me," said Sharif Abdrabbo, a candidate for Kenton County Attorney. He is one of three hoping to replace the retiring Garry Edmondson. "Competition is good. It's good for business, it's good for public office, it's good for this party."

He scored the biggest laugh of the night though when he summed up the three choices as the brunette, the blonde, and the bald guy.

Stacy Tapke, an assistant county attorney looking to replace her boss, and the blonde in Abdrabbo's joke, rattled off a lengthy list of her efforts in the county attorney's office. 

"I'm experienced, I am ready, and I am committed to making sure Kenton County remains the best place to live and raise a family," Tapke said. "I'm asking you to support the blonde one."

Attorney Donald Nageleisen is the third candidate and took the podium after he was left out of the mentions of table sponsors for the event. "(Shumate) forgets me and Sharif says I'm bald," he joked. He then asked for applause for Edmondson and said that in this race he has the most experience in a courtroom even if you combine the histories of Abdrabbo and Tapke. "You want the best guy for the job. I don't have to learn the job. No one has to teach me how to do a trial," he said. 
 
Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn kept a promise to his wife to keep his remarks short. His wife helped to make sure of that by writing his remarks for him. "Promises made, promises kept, vote for Chuck Korzenborn, a sheriff you can county on," he said. And that was that.
 
Korzenborn's opponent Seymour Fisk did not show.
 

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Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn's prepared remarks/RCN

Candidates for constable, magistrate, and four of five running in the non-partisan Kenton Co. Circuit Court judge's race also spoke. 

Congressman Thomas Massie was the keynote speaker and weighed in on the toughness of the county campaigns. "These local races have gotten kind of brutal," he said. Earlier in the day, Massie was at a ribbon-cutting in Florence. "What politician doesn't want to be there with a shovel in his hand?" Massie, who wears glasses, requested extra protection through the use of safety glasses before the shovels were placed into the wet dirt.

"You're giving politicians a bunch of shovels five days before an election - somebody's gonna get dirty."

"Speaking of jokes, the best joke I've seen in Congress this year is the President's budget," Massie said, beginning his post-dinner service of some political red meat to the audience.
 
That audience will be among an expected low turnout of voters in the county on Tuesday where that poll says one in five are unsure about the top race. But four days from now, the results will be in and the Kenton County Republican Party will begin its effort towards unity.
 
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News