Bluegrass Politics: Going in for the kill

As a Democrat, I marvel at how Kentucky Republicans, as a group, can act in concert to enforce discipline within their own political family, with a sort of efficiency that’s straight out of “The Sopranos.”

While most political observers have focused on recent decisions by Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, State Auditor Crit Luallen, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and former Gov. Brereton Jones not to seek the Democratic nomination for governor next year, I’ve fixated instead on the seamless efforts and methodical maneuvering of top Republican leadership to exorcise their own demon, aka Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the man who ended his party’s 32-year exile from the Governor’s Mansion in 2003.

For more than a year, members of Kentucky’s Republican leadership have barely concealed their contempt for the politically clumsy Fletcher, and they hold scant hope for his re-election in 2007. Fletcher has proven himself not ready for prime time, and this was confirmed by word of a recent Republican internal poll showing Fletcher’s hard re-elect number — those who would “definitely vote to re-elect” — at an unimaginably anemic 18 percent.
Despite this dismal situation, trying to finish off and replace Fletcher made no strategic sense for Republicans while Chandler was still considering a run. Polling earlier this year clearly showed that neither Fletcher, nor anyone else the Republicans might run (including Paducah businessman Billy Harper, who has announced his intentions), could defeat Chandler head-to-head. Instead, the best strategy was to bloody Fletcher and wait for Chandler to decide.
And bloody him they did.

In June, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence publicly divorced himself from Fletcher by announcing he would not run for re-election with him. In July, Senate President David Williams questioned Fletcher’s “re-electability,” while Jefferson County Republican Chairman Jack Richardson ridiculed him as “delusional” and called on him to step down. Then, the following month, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, one of the Republican Party’s rising stars, publicly toyed with a gubernatorial run before backing off.

The conventional wisdom was that if Chandler ran for governor, Republicans were willing to sacrifice Fletcher, believing Chandler would rout him in a rematch and end his political career in the process. However, if Chandler decided against a bid, Republicans would immediately descend on Fletcher like vultures to force him from the race, providing them hope that another candidate, untainted by Fletcher’s mess, might have a legitimate shot at keeping the office in Republican hands.
And descend on him they have.

No sooner than the day after Chandler announced he would not run, Republican godfather Mitch McConnell — who had stayed silent about Fletcher for the past year — offered his first public comment, of sorts: Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator said he would not endorse Fletcher’s re-election.

Days later, top Republican activist Ted Jackson compared Fletcher to cult leader David Koresh, and junior U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning also declined to endorse Fletcher, saying he wanted to see whether U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers or recently defeated U.S. Rep. Anne Northup would enter the primary race (it’s noteworthy that Rogers and Northup were Fletcher’s campaign co-chairs in 2003). And earlier this week, Republican legislative leaders railed against a key piece of Fletcher’s tax modernization legislation (one of his few political successes), calling it a “regressive tax” on small businesses, and thereby going after one of the few accomplishments he could tout next year.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been slow to capitalize on Fletcher’s nightmare, as they watch one top-tier gubernatorial candidate after another take a pass on next year’s race. Instead, the probable Democratic field now includes two former lieutenant governors (Steve Beshear and Steve Henry), a former lieutenant governor candidate (Charlie Owen), two former gubernatorial candidates (Bruce Lunsford and Speaker of the House Jody Richards), and Attorney General Greg Stumbo and State Treasurer Jonathan Miller. Hardly the field they’d hoped for.

Still, despite their slow start and lack of high-profile candidates, Democrats remain in the driver’s seat to take back the governorship next year. But they can’t afford another lackluster cycle, as they demonstrated in last month’s elections when Kentucky Democrats grossly underperformed their national counterparts.
Republican leaders have picked up where they left off last summer, hoping to subject Fletcher to political death by a thousand cuts. Only the politically naïve should believe they will easily give up what they waited 32 years to capture.

Mark Nickolas is publisher of the political blog Contact him at [email protected]