Issue July 11, 2006

Bluegrass Report: The Godfather speaks, silently

When Jack Richardson IV, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, unambiguously denounced Gov. Ernie Fletcher last week, it was yet another indication that Republican godfather Mitch McConnell has finally decided to intervene and stem the bleeding of his political party. And by mobilizing people like Richardson, who accused Fletcher of “political ineptitude” and urged him not to seek re-election, it’s clear the Godfather is using surrogates to push Fletcher off the cliff, once and for all.

Richardson’s comments came a day after Fletcher announced that his newly reformulated re-election campaign (after replacing Lt. Gov. Steve Pence with Robbie Rudolph) had raised more than $300,000 in campaign funds in just a few weeks.

But the timing of Richardson’s remarks was no coincidence, coming on the heels of similarly critical comments from Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville), who declared he and fellow Republicans had “serious doubts” about Fletcher’s re-electability. Williams’ comments came immediately after a successful special legislative session, and, like Richardson’s, had the effect of raining on Fletcher’s parade at the worst possible moment and confirming that the effort to topple the Fletcher administration from within is well under way. And the palace guards are leading the charge.

About the same time, the results of an internal national Republican Party poll were leaked, in full, to conservative publisher Lowell Reese of The Kentucky Gazette. It showed Fletcher getting trounced by Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in a hypothetical 2007 match-up, by a 55-28 margin.

While careful to keep distance from the public dirty work of his political henchmen, McConnell nevertheless managed to send his own subtle message about Fletcher’s political health.

Last week, after an event with top Republicans in Louisville to announce the building of a new veterans’ hospital, McConnell was asked for his assessment of Fletcher’s political trouble. McConnell responded, “I sort of make it a point to keep up on Frankfort, but I don’t have any observations to make.” Asked if he endorses Fletcher, McConnell declined and said, “I really haven’t given it any thought.”

Conspicuously absent from the event was Fletcher himself — hardly an oversight when it comes to big political events like these.

But while McConnell has managed to stay generally tight-lipped about the misfortunes of the man he’s credited with electing as the first Republican governor in 32 years, evidence of McConnell’s influence is increasingly clear, particularly in hindsight.

Six weeks ago, conservative political commentator John David Dyche penned an especially critical op-ed of Fletcher in The Courier-Journal, titled “For Fletcher, his term as Governor ‘is effectively over.’” Dyche’s piece ran the day after the May primary election. And while Dyche denied any McConnell role in his column, it’s worth noting that Dyche is presently writing a biography about McConnell.

Several months before, McConnell loyalists were able to torpedo Fletcher’s effort to remove Darrell Brock as chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky. It was a dramatic emasculation of a sitting governor and particularly noteworthy since it was McConnell himself who privately told Fletcher to do that very thing a few months earlier. At the time, Fletcher refused.

But McConnell’s influence over recent events has created some cracks in the historically smooth façade of his political empire, particularly with the state’s junior U.S. senator, Jim Bunning (R).

Word is Bunning became furious with the McConnell-led machinations following a private meeting of the state’s federal Republican delegation in Washington to discuss Fletcher’s fate. Bunning didn’t support getting involved in Fletcher’s affairs at that time.

But shortly after that meeting, Lt. Governor Pence (R) opted to leave the 2007 ticket in a very public manner, and McConnell’s surrogates then swung into action. The normally intemperate Bunning let his anger showcase itself when he took a barely-veiled public jab at McConnell’s opposition to the flag-burning amendment — which failed in the Senate by just one vote.
But McConnell’s efforts continued without skipping a beat.

Ultimately, for those waiting for McConnell to appear before us and unambiguously declare Fletcher’s days done, well, you might be waiting a very long time.

Instead, it’s important to focus on the nuance and the aggregate comments made by a variety of Republican surrogates, particularly those known to be close to McConnell.

Be sure to pay close attention, because it’s not every day you get a chance to watch political theater like this, especially when it comes to a top U.S. senator finishing off a governor of his own party still in his first term.

Mark Nickolas is publisher of the political blog BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org