Kentucky Vote May Impact McConnell

Posted May 15, 2007 at 6:43pm

The gubernatorial primary fight between Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and former Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) will be decided by voters next week, and hardly an eye on Capitol Hill will blink.

But there could be significant ramifications for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) back home, as the party he built and continues to lead moves to heal the wounds from the Fletcher-Northup fight.

McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2008, is publicly neutral and has said very little about the gubernatorial race.

“He’s stated that he’s publicly neutral and we take him at his word,” said Marty Ryall, Fletcher’s campaign manager.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), meanwhile, is supporting Northup and has done TV ads touting her candidacy.

But the widely held perception in Bluegrass political circles is that McConnell actively encouraged primary challengers to the embattled Fletcher, a former Member of Congress who was indicted last year on misdemeanor charges of politicizing civil service jobs.

Fletcher’s abysmally low approval ratings have bounced back some, and he now appears headed toward victory in Tuesday’s primary. The latest polls showed the incumbent with a sizable primary lead and, more importantly, above the key 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Wealthy businessman Billy Harper also is in the GOP race.

Publicly, most state Republicans say McConnell won’t face any harmful fallout if Northup loses and that in the end he will stand with Fletcher, if he is the nominee. There also is little evidence that McConnell has put the full weight of his machine behind Northup’s campaign.

But at the very least, the primary has exposed a fissure in the state GOP political apparatus that McConnell has presided over as chief architect for years — so much so that the renovated Republican Party headquarters in Frankfort even bears his name.

“I think that at the time before the filing deadline, it appeared to many of us that Gov. Fletcher might not be re-electable,” said state Senate President David Williams (R), recalling the earlier sentiment of many Republicans, including McConnell, as talk of a primary challenge raged. “I don’t think [McConnell] got her in the race, but I don’t think he discouraged anyone from getting in the race.”

Williams, who is publicly neutral in the contest but tells people if they ask that he’s voting for the governor, said above all else McConnell was frustrated by Fletcher’s handling of the scandal as it unfolded.

McConnell put his full weight behind Fletcher as the GOP’s nominee in 2003.

“At times, Gov. Fletcher has not been the most skillful politician to come down the pike, and that frustrates Sen. McConnell and it frustrates me,” Williams said.

Still, some Fletcher loyalists are indeed frustrated by McConnell’s refusal to publicly stand behind the governor and the perception that he meddled in the race.

Larry Forgy, a Republican activist who has lost several bids for statewide office, warned that McConnell’s support of Fletcher, if he is the nominee, would be imperative to repairing the damage done among party loyalists.

“This race, in my judgement, is going to show that the emperor has no clothes,” Forgy said.

“There are an awful lot of Republicans who resent his role in this,” he added. “And if he doesn’t get extremely active on behalf of Gov. Fletcher in Louisville … there are going to be a lot of people who are going to remember that in 2008 — Republican activists who are more Fletcher people than McConnell people.”

Louisville is the political base of both McConnell and Northup and is where Fletcher will have to make up a lot of ground in November should he win the primary.

McConnell and the Kentucky GOP already are planning a post-primary unity breakfast, and a McConnell aide said the Senator will support the party’s nominee.

“We’re for the Republican and plan on supporting whoever the Republican nominee is,” said McConnell Chief of Staff Billy Piper.

Forgy, who was narrowly defeated in the 1995 gubernatorial race by Democrat Paul Patton, is labeled by McConnell allies as an embittered former supporter with an ax to grind.

“I really don’t see how what Larry Forgy has to say serves much purpose,” Williams said.

Patton served two terms but left office disgraced by scandal, and Fletcher, then a Congressman, won the election to succeed him in 2003.

Forgy’s sister, state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R), ran to succeed Fletcher after he was elected governor but lost to now-Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) — who had lost the 2003 gubernatorial race to Fletcher.

Aside from Bunning, the four Republican Members of the Bluegrass State’s Congressional delegation have remained publicly neutral in the Fletcher-Northup primary.

However, Kayi Lewis, the wife of Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.), announced her support for Fletcher last week.

Northup’s campaign has been centered around a message of electability — she represented a Democratic-leaning district in Louisville before losing a bid for a sixth term in November. However, her fundraising has lagged in comparison to Fletcher’s.

On the Democratic side, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear currently has the lead heading into next week’s primary but it appears likely he will face a runoff.

Meanwhile, while there might be talk of some disgruntled Republicans in the state, there appears to be little evidence that McConnell has angered anyone enough to draw a primary challenge next year.

National Democrats hope they can recruit a top-tier challenger, and they may look to one or more of the unsuccessful candidates in the gubernatorial primary to run for Senate next year. Wealthy businessman Charlie Owen (D), who is not seeking statewide office this year, is the potential candidate most often mentioned.

“For any of them, it would be a suicide mission,” said Terry Carmack, Northup’s former chief of staff who is now political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “And there is zero chance of a Republican primary.”