FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky can usually count on national
headlines for its expensive horse races, but not necessarily
national political races.
That could change this year as the Kentucky governor's race is
one of three across the country. Louisiana and Mississippi are the
only two other states electing a chief executive in 2007.
"It's kind of the only game in town," said Bill Londrigan,
head of the state AFL-CIO.
Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, weakened by a hiring scandal
that embroiled his administration, is seeking a second term against
a challenge from Democrat Steve Beshear, a former lieutenant
Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee
chairman, is seeking re-election in Mississippi. Meanwhile,
candidates in Louisiana are seeking to succeed Gov. Kathleen
Blanco, who is not seeking another term.
A year ago at this time, Fletcher was considered by many as a
long-shot to win a second term on Nov. 6. His administration had
been under investigation since May 2005, and numerous officials and
associates had been indicted in the probe.
Fletcher eventually gave a blanket pardon to his entire
administration, except himself. The governor was later indicted on
three misdemeanor charges that were eventually dropped in a
negotiated deal with prosecutors.
Fletcher drew questions from leaders within his own Republican
party about whether he could win a second term, and faced
opposition during the primary from one-time allies, Paducah
businessman Billy Harper and former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup.
Nevertheless, Fletcher won and avoided a runoff.
For political observers, the Fletcher story line seems poised to
fill the void nationally.
Kentucky already has some national clout on the Republican side,
represented in Washington by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate
minority leader. And, Republican National Committee chairman Mike
Duncan is from Inez in eastern Kentucky.
But Brian Namey, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors
Association, said Kentucky represents one of the Democrats' "best
chances" to pick up a governor's office this year. It's important
not just for the upcoming presidential election, but also for the
redistricting in 2010, Namey said.
"The more Democratic governors you have, the stronger the party
is," Namey said.
Kentucky has voted for the presidential winner every year dating
back to 1964, said Les Fugate, a spokesman for Secretary of State
Trey Grayson. The last time Kentucky did not pick the eventual
winning presidential candidate was in 1960 when former President
John F. Kennedy defeated former President Richard Nixon.
Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors
Association, said Kentucky's governor's race is "critical" and
important to its residents, but that any added attention would
likely be attributed to there being only three races this year.
"Like it or not, the reality is because these are the only
three races, how Republicans do and how Democrats do - whether it's
true or not - the media will perceive it as a bellwether," Ayers
Kentucky's voting population has more than 1.5 million
registered Democrats to just more than 1 million Republicans.
State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, who is also the state
Democratic Party chairman, said he and Beshear went to Washington
earlier this month to help muster support.
Democratic success in Kentucky - a state that voted for
President Bush in both his presidential elections - could portend
presidential success the following fall, Miller said.
"The national folks see this as a great opportunity to turn
Kentucky blue again," Miller said.
Such attention might not be there in a more politically crowded
year, Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State
University said. Political leaders and the press tend to use
off-year elections as a barometer of the public's attitude leading
into presidential races, Beck said.
"I think it says more about the nature of the electorate of a
particular state," Beck said.
Success in 2007 might give a boost in 2008, Beck said.
"What you try to do is to develop some momentum out of these
off-year elections and to be able to say to your side, 'Hey we
picked of two of the three governor's races in 2007 and knocked off
a sitting governor,"' Beck said. "It really motivates the troops
in away and discourages people in the opposition party."
Despite the anticipated national attention, national issues
likely won't gain much traction in the fall contests, Beck said.
Candidates aren't taking, for instance, positions on the Iraq war,
Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party, said
he did not believe the race would show anything nationally.
"When you don't have federal candidates on the ballot, it boils
down to issues within that state," Robertson said. "In Kentucky,
that'll be the case."
Robert Kellar, Beshear's spokesman, said the campaign was
expecting "a great deal of attention nationally." The added
attention can at least be partly attributed to the legal and
political problems Fletcher has encountered during his first term,
National parties and other independent groups are likely to put
a higher focus on the race in Kentucky this year, Fletcher's
campaign manager, Marty Ryall, said. While the issues involved in
the race between Fletcher and Beshear are likely to be
Kentucky-centric, that probably won't deter outsiders from having
an interest, Ryall said.
"This race is about the state of Kentucky and the issues that
folks feel are important to them here," Ryall said. "I don't
think it's going to be driven by about what's going on in Iraq or
going on in Washington."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved