May 23, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ Kentucky-style

I’m often asked for my opinion about what will happen in the November election with all the scandal engulfing the Fletcher and Bush administrations, and whether we’ll see a Democratic Party landslide in response. I feel pretty good about the Democrats’ chances nationally, but Kentucky is an entirely different story.Just like those football games when two truly awful teams meet, one of them with an inept defense and the other with non-existent offense, you have to wonder which level of incompetence is less lethal, allowing them to win the game. That’s essentially the dynamic we have here in Kentucky between Republicans and Democrats.On one side of the political spectrum, you have the Republican Party of Kentucky, led by Chairman Darrell Brock, one of those recently indicted for his role in the current merit system investigation and pardoned by Fletcher, and who has become a political football within his own party. Last fall, when Fletcher and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) were still on speaking terms and trying to get the criminal investigation under control, McConnell told Fletcher to get rid of Brock and start fresh with a new Republican chairman not tainted by the scandal. Incomprehensibly, Fletcher resisted McConnell’s advice, and according to one highly-placed source, even shot back at McConnell in defiance, “Senator, I am the governor,” to which I’m told McConnell responded, “For now.” Barely a month later, as the scandal continued to veer out of control, Fletcher issued his now-famous blanket pardon of anyone involved in the merit mess. But when that failed to quell public uproar after several weeks, Fletcher fired nine staffers and finally demanded the resignation of Brock. It was too little, too late.While contemptuous of Brock, McConnell loyalists were even more determined to deprive Fletcher of his belated decision and send a powerful message about who was in charge of the Republican Party. Indeed, at the next gathering of the Republican Party executive committee, the Brock matter wasn’t even addressed, an unprecedented snubbing of its own governor. Nevertheless, McConnell loyalists have made clear to me that they know that Brock’s days are numbered, but it would happen on their terms, not Fletcher’s. While Brock is not allowed outside much to interact with the media, the McConnell machine has been able to raise money in spite of Brock’s presence. And while it’s impossible to defend the current mess in Frankfort, they’ve managed to money-up for the November elections, believing a good offensive will overcome having no defense.Across town in Frankfort, the Kentucky Democratic Party continues to demonstrate it is every bit as incompetent as the Fletcher administration, and each passing day gives Republicans hope that while they may be sitting on a report card with grades of D-minus, they are facing an opponent who may very well flunk out altogether.Democrats are led by Chairman Jerry Lundergan, a former state representative who, too, had his own brushes with political corruption charges in the past, only to be saved by an appellate court (which ruled he was charged with the wrong offense), rather than a governor’s pardon. But unlike the Republican Party’s problem of having no defense, the Democrats seem to have no offense. Time and again, Lundergan and crew either entirely fail to offer any leadership or they step in manure in plain view, with many believing that Lundergan’s silence is better than the unpredictable and unexpected. Just last week, on a pre-election night program on KET, Lundergan was asked about next year’s governor’s race, specifically the rumors that Rep. Ben Chandler (D), by far the best Democratic candidate, might run again. Lundergan freelanced, declaring that Chandler (no ally of his) would not run for governor, instead remaining in the House until a Senate seat opened up for him to seek.  Democrats were astounded by the comment since Chandler himself has not ruled out a run, and has never publicly discussed any interest in running for the Senate. However, Lundergan probably realizes that should Chandler become the Democratic nominee for governor next year, one of his first acts would be to kick the current crew out of Democratic Party headquarters and change the locks.To add insult to injury, rumors are circulating that the party is again experiencing money problems, complicating how it intends to campaign this fall. Though, admittedly, if you are one of those who prefers silence coming from Democrats, this is probably not a bad thing.It’s a sad day, indeed, when elections in Kentucky will hinge not on which party has the better platform, but which is the less inept. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at mark@bluegrassreport.org