Bluegrass Politics: Let the dance begin

Aug 1, 2006 at 8:06 pm

Kentucky’s political mating season begins in earnest this weekend with the annual political gathering known as Fancy Farm, which signals the unofficial start of the 2007 governor’s race. And while top acts like Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Sen. Mitch McConnell won’t appear, numerous gubernatorial hopefuls will be on location, working the crowd amid the picnic’s usual sweltering heat.

Between the two parties, the names of some two dozen aspirants have been floated, and yet all eyes remain fixated on two men: the incumbent governor and Ben Chandler.

To illustrate just how topsy-turvy Kentucky’s political world is at the moment, Democrats fervently hope Chandler — who lost to Fletcher by 10 points just three years ago — opts for a rematch. Meanwhile, Republicans desperately hope Fletcher doesn’t seek re-election, particularly not against Chandler, who in recent Republican polls is shown routing him by a 55 to 28 margin. Once you get past these two men, the field of wannabes stretches nearly to Fancy Farm itself.

On the Democratic side, former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry is the first person expected out of the gate. Henry served two terms as Gov. Paul Patton’s No. 2, but he’s also lost previous races for Congress and Senate. However, his chances can’t be minimized in a wide-open field.

If Chandler doesn’t run, many of his close political allies are exploring a race: There’s Auditor Crit Luallen, the only Democratic woman mentioned as a possible candidate; Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson; long-time Democratic leader Terry McBrayer; and former congressional candidate Jack Conway.

The Democratic list also includes people who recently sought other offices but failed: 2004 U.S. Senate nominee Daniel Mongiardo; 2003 gubernatorial candidate Jody Richards; 2003 lieutenant governor nominee Charlie Owen; and 2003 attorney general candidate Gatewood Galbraith, who ran as an independent then but intends to seek the Democratic nomination in 2007.

The biggest name on the list, however, is former Gov. Brereton Jones. He continues to actively promote Chandler as the best option, but longtime supporters say Jones is considering his own run if that does not happen. Then there’s Attorney General Greg Stumbo. He’s staying especially coy, not ruling out a run during his current investigation of Fletcher. Stumbo is a masterful political tactician and strategist, and he’d be dangerous in a crowded field.

On the Republican side, several names have been floated as possible candidates, but few have are willing to say so publicly. At the top of that list is Lt. Gov. Steve Pence. Two months ago he said he won’t run for re-election with Fletcher, although he has carefully avoided ruling out his own race next year. But few people expect Pence to run for anything in 2007.

Speculation abounds that a Republican congressional member may heed the call and run, particularly if Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives this fall. Most notably, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers is at the top of that list, followed by U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield and Anne Northup, although those two consistently deny interest.

Stateside, the top two legislative leaders — Senate President David Williams and House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover — often get mentioned, and one anonymous group recently began an effort to draft obscure state Rep. Lonnie Napier.

But only Paducah businessman Billy Harper has openly expressed interest in challenging Fletcher. It’s worth noting that Harper was Fletcher’s statewide finance chairman during the 2003 race.

Before any of these possible candidates can begin exploring a run and raising money, however, they first need a date for the dance — also known as a running mate. And that hurdle has been problematic.

Like a schoolgirl who doesn’t want to say yes to her first invitation to the prom, potential running mates suffer similar maladies. The younger rising stars are hesitant to commit, for fear that a better offer will come. The older candidates are reluctant to commit as well, but more from uncertainty about who else will run and thereby affect their ability to win. In fact, there’s been plenty of talk that Henry was unable to jump out early because of difficulties in getting a commitment from potential running mates. Despite this seemingly open field of candidates, most insiders believe this pageant will ultimately be sparse, and that next year may very well bring a Fletcher-Chandler rematch.

Then again, this is Kentucky, where fact is often stranger than fiction. Which is to say, stay tuned.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, Contact him at [email protected].