With barely a year until Kentucky voters select the nominees for governor in 2007, political insiders and the media are wondering if we’ll see a rematch of the 2003 race between current Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D).
In 2003, Fletcher ran against a climate of scandal, promising to “clean up the mess” in Frankfort left by outgoing Gov. Paul Patton (D). He won by 10 points and became the state’s first Republican governor in 32 years. Chandler, however, quickly regained his footing following his first-ever defeat. Three months later he was elected to the congressional seat vacated by Fletcher himself, by a hefty 12-point margin. (Disclosure: I managed both of Chandler’s campaigns.)
Since then, Fletcher’s administration has wallowed in an eerily familiar stench of political corruption and cronyism compared to that left by his predecessor, with awful job approval ratings to match. Meanwhile, Chandler found Congress to his liking and so have voters, who strongly approve of the job he is doing.
Now, with the 2007 election looming, Chandler finds himself the most popular kid on the block, and a full-court press is under way to convince him to run again. Republicans are quiet, uninterested in rousing the sleeping giant and knowing Chandler has expressed little interest in a rematch, all while their own polling shows a whipping of Fletcher in such a contest.
Lately, however, Chandler has begun to show interest, and the smart money is lined up — unlike 2003 when they backed Fletcher. Groups such as the horsemen, state employees, teachers, small business owners, veterans and disaffected Democrats, who believed Fletcher’s promises in 2003, have shown wholesale buyer’s remorse over the lemon they believed was a Cadillac. They’re urging Chandler to consider running.
Those who know Chandler well will attest that he loves public service but, contrary to his political pedigree, isn’t obsessed with climbing the political ladder. Chandler has never left a seat to run for another office; each time he was facing term limits. And while he wore the albatross of the legacy of his grandfather, Happy Chandler, for his early career, his gutsy and successful decision to run for Congress barely a month after losing to Fletcher dispelled lingering doubts that it was his family name that kept his political boat sailing, not his own skill.
Many believe a 2007 election to governor would set the stage for a 2010 run for Senate, a feat even his grandfather could not manage until he appointed himself to the seat in 1939 while serving as governor, following the death of Sen. M.M. Logan. And it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what future opportunities it might present to a young southern Democratic governor-turned-Senator who had already served in Congress and as attorney general. Some compare Chandler to another young southerner, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who lost a Senate race in 1996 only to turn around and win the governorship in 2001. Warner now finds himself among the early favorites for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
If Chandler opted to a run, his candidacy could pick up seamlessly where it started during the 2003 general election when he stood beneath the Kennedy Bridge in Louisville and articulated his first detailed campaign proposal — a comprehensive ethics-in-government plan.
In it, Chandler proposed overhauling the state’s Transportation Cabinet, creating a bipartisan pardon board to review applications and make recommendations to the governor. He even pledged: “And let me make another thing clear: If you violate the trust of the people of Kentucky, do not expect a pardon from Ben Chandler. I pledge right here, right now never to pardon any member of my administration or my political campaign who is convicted of violating the ethics and corruption laws of our state.”
Ominously, Fletcher would never agree to such a pledge, nor did he support Chandler’s demand that Patton resign after pardoning members of his campaign staff facing political corruption charges — brought against them by then-Attorney General Chandler.
Chandler has the luxury of taking his time to decide, knowing he has effectively frozen the Democratic field for now without trying, while he continues assessing the political landscape and wondering whether national Democrats will regain a majority in the House of Representatives, allowing them to begin much-anticipated investigations into the scandals that have plagued the Bush administration.
Considering where things stood just a few years ago, it’s not bad to be Ben Chandler these days.
Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org, which recently won the 2005 Koufax Award for Best State or Local Blog in the country. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org