Statehouse Candidates Run Against D.C. in Kentucky, Mississippi

Posted August 15, 2003 at 12:34pm

While most gubernatorial elections turn on state issues and local personalities, the Democratic nominees for governor in Mississippi and Kentucky are banking that voters will think a lot about Washington, D.C., when they go to the polls in November.[IMGCAP(1)]

Both Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) of Mississippi and Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) are playing the cards they’ve been dealt. With state budget problems and personal issues (for Musgrove, his own; for Chandler, the outgoing governor’s) dogging their campaigns, the two Democrats have found a juicy target: Washington. In Chandler’s case, that target includes the GOP Congress and President Bush.

Musgrove is battling a poor state economy and a divorce while seeking a second term in the Mississippi statehouse. His opponent, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, has White House support and plenty of financial backing from his D.C. lobbyist friends.

Chandler, who won Kentucky’s Democratic nomination after a tough primary and is saddled with an unpopular outgoing Democratic governor (Paul Patton) along with a clear Republican trend in the state, faces Rep. Ernie Fletcher, a doctor and three-term Congressman who has a united GOP behind him.

The two Democrats know that their chances of winning in November aren’t good if their elections are referenda on the past four years.

While Musgrove helped bring a major Nissan plant to the state, Mississippi’s budget problems have voters looking for a change. And while Chandler insists he fought the Patton administration and attacked corruption in the state Legislature, his Democratic label means that many voters will hold him responsible for misdeeds other Democratic officeholders committed.

So both Musgrove and Chandler are trying to tap voter suspicion of anything that has to do with D.C. And each is also trying to turn GOP control of the White House and both chambers of Congress against his Republican opponent.

An Aug. 5 Kentucky Democratic Party press release, for example, reports on the “nearly 40,000 jobs lost in Kentucky since Fletcher-Bush took office in January 2003.” “We cannot allow Fletcher-Bush economic policies to take hold in Frankfort,” Jeff Derouen, communications director of the state party’s coordinated campaign, said in the release.

Two days later, another party release railed against the “flaws and failings of the Fletcher-Bush economy” and the “fiscal irresponsibility of the Fletcher-Bush economic policies.” “The actions of the Republicans in Washington have Kentuckians from Pikesville to Paducah saying ‘it’s time for a change,’” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Westrom.

Chandler and Bluegrass State Democrats paint Fletcher and his Republican colleagues, not the Democratic governor, as responsible for Kentucky’s problems. If they succeed in placing blame on Bush and the GOP Congress, state voters will blame Fletcher instead of Patton and his party’s heir, Chandler.

Musgrove is also trying to make his re-election race something of a referendum on the nation’s capital when he refers to Barbour as a Washington insider. In defining the GOP lobbyist as a “fat cat” who has little in common with the average Mississippi voter, Musgrove is playing on stereotypes of Washington as a place where people wear $600 shoes and $2,000 suits.

Now, with the national economy stalled and the president’s stock slipping, Musgrove’s deprecating references to Washington could have the added benefit of tying Barbour to policies that are coming under increasing criticism and which, according to Democrats, account for Mississippi’s economic problems.

Of course, the strategies employed by Musgrove and Chandler aren’t completely new. When times are good, politics is about taking credit. When times are bad, politics is about passing blame or making one’s opponent unacceptable. Governors around the country continue to be blamed for poor economic conditions, and the only way for them — whether it’s Musgrove, Missouri’s Bob Holden (D) or California’s Gray Davis (D) — to survive politically is to look for a scapegoat.

Musgrove’s strategy has a better chance of succeeding than Chandler’s. That’s because the Mississippi governor is using Barbour’s own résumé to try to discredit the Republican nominee and to raise questions about the challenger’s values. Chandler, meanwhile, is trying to make a more complicated connection, linking Fletcher to Washington to Bush to the national economy.

Patton successfully employed a version of Chandler’s strategy eight years ago, when, as veteran Kentucky journalist Al Cross notes, both President Bill Clinton and the state Democratic Party warned that Republicans in Washington were a threat to Social Security and Medicare. But Kentucky’s drift to the GOP over the past decade makes it much tougher for Chandler to sell a partisan message.

Frankfort is a lot closer to the state’s voters than is Washington, D.C., and Kentucky politicians have their own problems. While polls show that Americans are unhappy with Bush’s handling of the economy, most Kentucky voters will see this year’s balloting as a referendum on the performance of Kentucky’s officeholders. And that’s not what Ben Chandler wants.


Rothenberg Political Report