Gubernatorial Races to Set Table

Kentucky, Louisiana Senate Contests Affected By ’03 Votes

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:16pm

Three months before voters choose new governors in Kentucky and Louisiana, it is becoming apparent that these contests could have a profound impact on the 2004 Senate elections. They could set up a succession scenario in the Pelican State Senate race and produce the eventual Democratic nominee against Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).

In Louisiana, Sen. John Breaux (D) has postponed a decision on seeking a fourth term until the governor’s race is decided, driving speculation that if a Democratic governor is elected, Breaux might resign so that a fellow Democrat — presumably Rep. Chris John — could be appointed by the new governor to fill the remaining months of Breaux’s term. That would enable John to seek a full term in 2004 with at least some of the benefits of incumbency.

The official line from Breaux’s office is that he has delayed an announcement on his political future to keep the focus on the Democrats running for governor, an office the party has not held in eight years.

Kentucky Democrats are playing a waiting game of their own as state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) and Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) battle for the state’s highest office.

Although former state Attorney General Fred Cowan is already in the Senate race on the Democratic side, no top-tier candidate is expected to step up to challenge Bunning until the governor’s race concludes.

“Democrats seem to be frozen in that race,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.

Several of the candidates mentioned — including Chandler running mate Charlie Owen and state Treasurer Jonathan Miller — will be on the ballot in November and could quickly use the name identification and organization established this year for a race against Bunning, however.

Owen, who has significant personal wealth, has run twice before for federal office, losing both bids.

In 1994 he placed second in a primary for the 3rd district House seat while spending $800,000 of his own money.

Four years later Owen again placed second, losing to then-Rep. Scotty Baesler in the Democratic Senate primary. Owen spent $6.6 million from his own pocket on that race.

Miller has a losing federal race under his belt as well, coming in sixth in a seven- candidate field to replace Baesler in 1998.

But he went on to win election to his current statewide post the following year and is expected to cruise to a second term in November.

Other Democrats mentioned as possible Senate contenders include Louisville stockbroker Stan Curtis and Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tony Miller, who was part of a ticket that came up just short of knocking off Chandler and Owen in May.

Even in the best of Democratic scenarios, however, a Senate candidacy by either Owen or Miller is fraught with political peril.

If both men win, they would be forced to pivot into another race weeks after campaigning for their current office, a proposition that might rub voters wrong.

Kentucky Democratic Party Executive Director Mark Riddle argues that if Chandler wins it would be a shot in the arm for a party that has existed under a cloud since late last year, when Gov. Paul Patton (D) admitted having an affair with a state employee.

“Maintaining the governor’s office in adverse conditions would give the party a great deal of momentum heading into 2004,” Riddle said.

Even Riddle admits, however, that if Democrats lose the governor’s race, recruiting for the Senate could grow significantly more difficult.

“If we did not maintain the governorship, money would be harder to come by in Kentucky,” he said.

Bunning surprised many observers by collecting almost $1 million between April 1 and June 30. He had roughly $2 million to spend on the race at the end of the period.

“[Bunning] starts down the road whereas whatever Democrat is the nominee is back at the starting line,” said Scott Jennings, a senior political adviser at the Kentucky Republican Party.

Democrats insist that despite Bunning’s cash-on-hand total and their current lack of a top-tier nominee, the gubernatorial contest will have little effect on the competitiveness of the Senate race in 2004.

“It’s all about Jim Bunning,” said Mike Siegel, Allen’s counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He has hardly distinguished himself as a force in the Senate.” Siegel added that Bunning was a “quintessential backbencher.”

The situation in Louisiana is even more fluid as political operatives on both sides of the aisle try to divine what Breaux’s next move will be.

The possibility that he will resign his seat in hopes of selecting a hand-picked replacement is currently churning through the Louisiana rumor mill.

National operatives see Breaux as one of the most politically savvy Senators in the Democratic Caucus and refuse to rule out the possibility that he is planning his own succession.

“We are waiting like everybody else to see what Senator Breaux’s intentions are,” said Allen, the NRSC spokesman.

If Breaux resigns following the gubernatorial election in November, the new governor would appoint someone to fill out the remaining months of Breaux’s term.

The appointed Senator would have to run in 2004 to win a full six-year term, but would benefit from nearly a year of incumbency in the interim.

The likely benefactor would be John, a four-term Congressman representing the southwest Louisiana 7th district.

John is seen as a Breaux protégé, as they hail from the same hometown, went to the same high school and even vote in the same precinct.

Breaux held the 7th district from 1972 until 1986, when he was elected to the Senate.

John has made it clear that if Breaux bows out, he is a likely candidate. He picked up his fundraising pace during the past three months, bringing in $253,000. He ended the period with $719,000.

John refused to speculate about whether a Democratic governor might lead Breaux to step down before the 2004 election and said he has not spoken with the Senator about the timing of his decision.

“You can put a million scenarios out there,” John said. “Let’s leave it there.”

John may not have the Democratic field to himself, however, as losing gubernatorial candidates could also jump into the race.

The announced Democrats in the governor’s race include Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, former state Senate President Randy Ewing and former Rep. Buddy Leach. Ieyoub ran for the Senate in 1996, taking 20 percent and placing third in the open primary. They are competing with several Republicans in an open primary set for October; if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers — regardless of party — square off a month later.

Past Louisiana election history indicates an off-year gubernatorial bid can pay dividends in a Senate race.

In 1995, then-state Treasurer Mary Landrieu (D) placed third in the gubernatorial primary; she quickly turned to the open Senate seat in 1996, defeating former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) by 5,788 votes. Landrieu was elected to a second term last December in a runoff.

Republicans are confident that if Breaux’s seat comes open they will field a strong candidate in Rep. David Vitter (R).

“With the level of interest that Vitter has shown in this race, it makes Republicans feel encouraged about a potential open seat in Louisiana,” said one Republican leadership aide.

Vitter has traveled extensively in the state so far this year, raising money and bringing home pork, according to several state sources.

Vitter raised $246,000 in the second quarter and had $1.1 million on hand. He was considered an all-but-announced candidate for the governor’s race but pulled out last May, revealing that he and his wife were undergoing counseling for “cumulative stress.”

Vitter had transferred more than $700,000 from his federal campaign committee to a state gubernatorial account but, following a favorable ruling from the Federal Election Commission, he transferred it back. He did not return a call for comment.

The one thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on is that if Breaux decides to run again, he will be easily re-elected.

“If he runs, no matter what happens in the gubernatorial race, we would certainly expect him to win by an overwhelming margin,” said Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Mike Skinner.