Bluegrass Politics: Next…

As quickly as the 2006 election season ended, the 2007 race for governor begins. Indeed, there’s no rest for the weary (public). By the time this column sees print, we’ll know the outcomes of Tuesday’s races and, barring the unexpected, it seems safe to conclude that U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) will return to Congress as a member of the majority party and not seek a rematch of his 2003 gubernatorial race against current Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), which most political observers saw as an easy victory for Chandler.
With Chandler out of the equation, the race gets interesting for both parties.

On the Democratic side, there’s been a great deal of coalescing over the past few weeks around a comeback bid by former Gov. Brereton Jones (D), who served from 1991-95. While Jones, 67, flirted with a run in 2003, people close to him believe he’s serious, and all signs point to him making his intentions clear very soon, possibly even by week’s end. Jones made no secret of his preference that Chandler be the Democratic Party’s nominee next year, but left the door open to another run if he didn’t.

Should Jones signal his readiness, it puts a great deal of pressure on a possible run by Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson (D), himself headed for a landslide re-election over Metro Councilman Kelley Downard (R). Abramson, 60, has also flirted with a statewide run before, and the political chatter is that he’s more interested now than ever, particularly considering that the incumbent Fletcher remains stuck at 30-percent job approval and unpopular even within his own party.

An early Jones announcement seems designed to force Abramson into making an especially early decision on whether to seek another office, even before being sworn in to another four-year mayoral term, a prospect that may rankle Louisville voters whose support he would count on in large numbers for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion.

Complicating Abramson’s decision is whether Chandler will indicate his early and enthusiastic backing for a Jones bid, his one-time Woodford County rival with whom he appears to be on good terms these days.
But the showdown between Jones and Abramson isn’t the only story. Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry (D) has already indicated his own gubernatorial aspirations, and many expect a formal announcement in the coming weeks.

Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) also appears to be quietly gearing up for his own bid, and there has been plenty of chatter of late that Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan intends to step down from his post shortly to take a prominent role in the Stumbo campaign.

Auditor Crit Luallen (D) has long been considered a top gubernatorial contender, but her close relationship with both Jones and Abramson makes a running mate role more likely this time around. Some believe that if Jones announced his intentions to serve only one term if elected, that would make the second spot much more appealing to Luallen. Others see Louisville’s Jack Conway as the best pairing for Jones, providing an ideal contrast in terms of geography and age.

Still considering their own gubernatorial bids are Speaker of the House Jody Richards (D) and Louisville businessman Charlie Owen (D), neither of whom can be ruled out as contenders if they step into the ring, particularly in a fairly crowded primary field.

On the Republican side, the outcome of the race between U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (R) and LEO founder John Yarmuth (D) may have enormous implications in next year’s race as well. (On this Election Eve, Yarmuth appears to have a small lead, but it remains too close to call.)

A Yarmuth victory may be the Republican Party’s gain, if only in one respect: It would give them a potential top-shelf primary challenger to Gov. Fletcher if Northup desired to remain in public office.
In fact, a Northup candidacy might be a factor on the Democratic side as well, since it would cancel out any concerns that a Louisvillian (Abramson) could not be elected statewide as governor. Conversely, without Northup’s entry, the smart money would remain on Fletcher being the GOP standard-bearer next year, a match-up that would seem to greatly favor Jones in a general election.

So, if you woke up this morning thinking to yourself, “Thank God the election is over,” you might have spoken too soon. The horses are already entering the paddock for the next race, and the 2007 primary election is barely six months away …

Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected]