A look at Kentucky

Posted June 20, 2003 at 6:13pm

Any discussion of politics in the Bluegrass State begins and ends with the upcoming gubernatorial race between Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) and state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D). [IMGCAP(1)]

The race is being cast as a decisive moment in the state’s political history, as the longtime Democratic dominance on the

state level will be tested by Republicans’ increasing success in federal elections.

It will also serve as a petri dish to study how much damage Gov. Paul Patton’s (D) acknowledged affair with a state employee and recent pardoning of several high-ranking members of his administration has inflicted on other Democrats seeking elective office.

Democrats have by and large disavowed Patton — Chandler called for his resignation last week — and believe that voters will separate his mistakes from the party as a whole. Republicans argue that Patton’s behavior perfectly symbolizes the result of one party controlling the state’s top post for more than 30 years.

“Everything depends on this race,” admitted state Democratic Party Executive Director Mark Riddle, who moved into his current post after managing Chandler’s primary victory last month.

While much of the positioning for 2004 federal races is on hold until the gubernatorial race concludes this November, potential candidates in Fletcher’s 6th district are already testing the waters in the event the three-term Republican ascends to the governor’s office.

If he wins the governorship, Fletcher would be sworn in Dec. 8, and knowledgeable Republicans believe he would declare the seat vacant the next day and quickly call a special election for late January 2004.

Whether the abbreviated schedule would allow for a primary remains unclear, though it seems unlikely. In the event there are no primaries, each party’s executive committee would likely select one candidate to represent them in the special election, knowledgeable state sources said.

The uncertainty about the selection process has not dissuaded would-be nominees from looking at the race.

On the Republican side, state Sens. Tom Buford and Alice Kerr as well as state Rep. Stan Lee are considered possible contenders. Both Kerr and Lee are from Lexington, the population base of the district.

Ellen Williams, who has served as state party chairwoman since 1999 and lives in the more rural western part of the district, as well as Fletcher chief of staff — and his gubernatorial campaign manager — Daniel Groves are also reportedly interested.

There are a number of Democrats lining up to take their shot in this district as well.

Perhaps the leading candidate in the special election scenario would be state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone (D), who won his party’s primary but lost the 1998 general election to Fletcher 53 percent to 46 percent.

“If there is a special election, Ernesto would be likely to jump in because of his name ID and his chits with executive committee members in Lexington and Frankfort,” a Kentucky Democrat said.

Scorsone raised and spent better than $1 million against Fletcher but could not shake the “liberal” tag.

Other Democrats interested in the seat include state Sen. R.J. Palmer, Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn, state Rep. Susan Westrom and state Treasurer Jonathan Miller.

Palmer is on the verge of forming an exploratory committee to begin raising money for the race, according to a Kentucky Democratic source, and has significant connections to high-powered fundraisers in the district. Palmer also has family money, the source said.

Westrom was named state party chairman Thursday and is seen as a favorite of EMILY’s List.

Miller placed a dismal sixth out of seven candidates in the 1998 6th district primary but won statewide in 1999 and is seen as a protege of former Vice President Al Gore.

In the event a special election is called, it will be interesting to see how much of a role each national party will play in the race.

Although the 6th leans toward Republicans — President Bush would have won 56 percent of the vote there in 2000 — Democrats are likely to make a run at it given the paucity of potential targets in the 2004 elections.

It will also serve as an early test of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s ability to stay financially competitive with their Republican counterparts in an all-hard-money world.

The Patton reverberations are not limited to the governor’s race or the possible subsequent special election, however.

Prior to his political implosion the governor was seen as an all-but-announced candidate against freshman Sen. Jim Bunning (R) for 2004. The race was then a top target of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Now, Democrats are casting about for a replacement candidate. The most intriguing name is Louisville stockbroker Stan Curtis, who founded USA Harvest, an organization that helps feed the poor with unused food from restaurants.

Curtis also has significant fundraising bona fides, having headed up the finance team of Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson (D) in 2002.

Jefferson County Attorney Irv Maze, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, state House Speaker Jody Richards, who placed second in the May gubernatorial primary, and state Treasurer Miller are also considering a run against Bunning. Former state Attorney General Fred Cowan (D) is already in the race.

On the House level, Democrats have lost four districts over the past 10 years. In January 1994, Democrats controlled the delegation 4-to-2. Now, Republicans hold a 5-1 edge.

The turnabout is largely credited to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), who has personally recruited, mentored and financed several GOP incumbents over the past decade.

Perhaps McConnell’s greatest success came in the Louisville-based 3rd district, where Rep. Anne Northup (R) has held the Democratic-leaning seat since 1996.

Northup has been targeted in each re-election since she defeated then-Rep. Mike Ward (D), but has always prevailed — albeit by close margins.

In 2002, Northup knocked off attorney Jack Conway 52 percent to 48 percent; one Kentucky Democrat described Conway as the “800-pound gorilla” in the 2004 race.

Conway is considering a rematch but is concerned that his connection to Patton — he served as a top aide to the governor — could submarine a campaign, according to knowledgeable Democratic sources. Operatives affiliated with Conway’s 2002 campaign acknowledged after the election that the Patton association hurt their campaign.

Aside from Conway, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tony Miller and Maze are mentioned. Miller was Jody Richards’ ticketmate in the May primary.

Another interesting potential Democratic candidate is state Rep. Joni Jenkins. Jenkins’ electoral base is in the southern end of Louisville, a blue-collar area that has been trending toward Northup in recent years. Democratic strategists believe Jenkins could neutralize Northup’s geographic gains but are concerned about her fundraising ability.

The only other district being closely watched by both parties is Rep. Ken Lucas’ (D) 4th, which he has held since 1998 despite its strong Republican tendencies.

Lucas will face a stiff challenge from 2002 nominee Geoff Davis (R) next year, and there are a number of other GOP candidates waiting in the wings even if Lucas is able to hold the seat this cycle.

Former McConnell Chief of Staff Hunter Bates is clearly a fast riser in the party and is likely to run for some elected office over the next decade. He and his wife currently live in the 4th district.

Bates’ career suffered something of a setback earlier this year, however, when a state court threw him off the ballot as Fletcher’s running mate because he did not meet Kentucky’s residency requirements. Prior to that decision, Bates had briefly considered running in the 4th and even secured McConnell’s early endorsement in that race.

State Sens. Katie Stine and Damon Thayer would also look seriously at the race, according to Bluegrass Republicans. Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore is also seen as a Congressional candidate down the road.

The 1st, 2nd and 5th districts are all noncompetitive as long as GOP Reps. Ed Whitfield, Ron Lewis and Hal Rogers remain in the House, Democrats concede. Of the three, only Rogers seems a legitimate retirement possibility in the near future. He has held the southeastern Kentucky seat since 1980.

One potential replacement for Rogers is former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, who is currently running for state agriculture commissioner.

Others mentioned are Mike Duncan, general counsel for the Republican National Committee, and state Sen. Robert Stivers. Bob Mitchell, Rogers’ longtime district director, would be the “walking away favorite” if he chose to run, according to a Kentucky Republican.