Sabatos Crystal Ball

The 2007 Kentucky Gubernatorial Derby: It’s Fletcher vs. Beshear

PLUS: More Gubernatorial "Street Sense"

Larry J. Sabato and David Wasserman, U.Va. Center for Politics May 23rd, 2007


The votes are in from yesterday’s Kentucky gubernatorial primary, and Democrats will have to try hard to lose this race in November.

Despite a large field of six candidates, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear surprised many in the Democratic Party by crossing the 40 percent threshold–he received 40.9 percent in the preliminary tally–needed to prevent a runoff. That was an impressive showing, and he owes it in part to the nicely timed endorsement of one of his former rivals, State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, on May 7th. In the Kentucky Derby that was the race for the Democratic nomination, Beshear outpaced his closest rival, Bruce Lunsford, by nearly 20 percentage points but avoided a runoff by a nose. That nose makes for a mile of difference in the general election, as Beshear may now charge ahead to November immediately (though Lunsford would have been hard pressed to win a runoff and claimed on Election Night that he would have conceded the primary to Beshear in order to give the Democratic winner a strong start toward the fall).

Meanwhile, GOP Governor Ernie Fletcher capped a comeback of sorts by defeating former Congresswoman Anne Northup 50 percent to 37 percent for his party’s nomination. Fletcher’s 50 percent may appear more impressive than Beshear’s 41 percent, but looks are deceiving. There were only three GOP candidates, and the third, Billy Harper, was a minor force. Moreover, about half of his own party voted against Fletcher for renomination–an extraordinarily high total for the first Republican Governor since Louis Nunn served from 1967-1971. Northup’s second major defeat in six months stings the state party’s anti-Fletcher faction, which had been led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell behind the scenes. Northup trounced Fletcher 2 to 1 in the Louisville media market, but the region accounted for less than 30 percent of the GOP primary vote, and she languished at 26 percent in the rest of the state. She posted even poorer percentages in Northern Kentucky, home of her major public endorser, junior Sen. Jim Bunning.

In all, there may have been no true winners in yesterday’s Republican contest. Many Republicans are less than enthusiastic about their scandal-drenched party leader, while the Democrats are likely to quickly reunite, as they smell blood and the opportunity to retake the Governor’s Mansion in the general election. It is true that Fletcher’s powers of incumbency should not be underestimated, and Kentucky has increasingly been tilting Republican over the last decade. Yet President Bush is deeply unpopular in the Bluegrass State, just as he is most places, and the Iraq War is a heavy burden for Republicans everywhere–even those running for state rather than federal office.

Kentucky Governor Outlook: LEANS DEMOCRATIC

More Gubernatorial “Street Sense”

Why are governor’s races important for 2008? Anyone who has been involved in Presidential politics will tell you that the only endorsements that matter are the gubernatorial ones. U.S. Senators rarely have large machines at the ready within states, but Governors do. Each Chief Executive appoints thousands of officials, who take their cue from the Governor and will reliably show up for rallies and “volunteer” efforts.

Governors also have hundreds of large contributors, who can be steered to fund the party’s Presidential campaign and associated get-out-the-vote efforts. And Governors are the only politicians who can create news opportunity after news opportunity for their favored nominee within each state’s border–by stumping with the candidates, holding press conferences, arranging rallies, and all the rest. Unlike Senators, Governors inspire fear, and as Machiavelli taught his prince and as Sonny reminded Calogero, it is better to be feared than to be loved.

Unlike in 2004, when Republicans had 28 Governors to the Democrats’ 22, it is the Democrats who will dominate the election landscape in 2008. Currently, the Democrats control 28 of 50 statehouses. This year, Mississippi is certain to stay Republican with Gov. Haley Barbour, Kentucky could easily switch from Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher to Democratic nominee Steve Beshear, and Louisiana could tumble the other way, from retiring Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco to likely GOP nominee Congressman Bobby Jindal. Thus, the ’08 line-up will probably be similar to today’s Democratic statehouse advantage.

How did the current gubernatorial picture come into being? It’s impossible to see how the make up of each state will impact the 2008 picture without understanding the dynamics involved in the results of the 2006 statehouse races. In the recently released volume, The Sixth Year Itch, eleven individual governor’s races are examined by distinguished scholars and prominent journalists “on the ground” in each state. The Sixth Year Itch also examines Senate and House contests, as well as national trends and also looks ahead to the 2008 contests. Below are excerpts from selected governor’s race chapters:

Chapter 20 – The Governator’s Comeback Victory in California

Bruce E. Cain, University of California at Berkeley

It is folly perhaps to read too much into an anomalous victory by a celebrity governor in a state prone to surprising election outcomes. But it is also too cynical to say that the election was completely devoid of meaning. First, it was a triumph of bipartisan and moderate politics at a time when there seemed to be a growing weariness with the polarization of the last decade. Arnold’s willingness to bring in Susan Kennedy and to abandon a conservative partisan agenda for a consensual one centered on re-building the state’s infrastructure was the key to his victory. The 2005special served as his wake-up call, and Arnold, ever the populist, was willing to give the people what they wanted, even if he had to humiliate himself publicly to do so.

Secondly, this election reminds us that the red-blue distinction, while handy for summarizing the usual electoral inclinations of a state, can overstate the level of dominance that any party truly has. Because California has some extremely liberal areas like San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, West Hollywood, etc., outside observers tend to over-state the Democratic hold on the state as a whole. In fact, many of the eastern rural exurbs and southern suburbs are socially conservative while many of the socially liberal areas in the north and coastal regions are economically moderate (i.e. tax averse). The Latinos, now over a third of population, are economically liberal and socially conservative. The state has only had three Democrats elected to the Governor’s office since World War II, and only one other since the turn of the century. In short, if the state is any color, it is pale blue on average, with many dark patches of red and blue up close.

Chapter 21 – Florida Governor and Senate: Split Decisions Give Both Parties Something to Cheer About

Susan MacManus, University of South Florida

Holding on to the governor’s chair was the Republican Party’s number one priority. They did it but not before spending mega-bucks. The Crist campaign broke all fundraising records, as did efforts by the Republican Party of Florida.

The primary, which pitted Crist against the religious right candidate, Tom Gallagher, was less contentious than expected, making it easier for the party–and critical campaign contributors–to coalesce behind Crist’s candidacy. Governor Jeb Bush’s refusal to take sides during the primary made it easy for him to become a Crist cheerleader the day after. And the Governor was considerably more highly regarded than his brother, the President.

Bright spots for Republicans in 2006, compared to 2004, were making inroads with black voters (Crist got a record 18 percent, exceeding Jeb Bush’s 14 percent in 1998), older and younger voters, independents, moderates, and liberals. At the same time, Crist’s image as a moderate centrist caused Republicans to lose ground among a large conservative base and in the less densely populated north and central Florida regions. Nonetheless, Crist won 59 of 67 counties, including all the counties in the important I-4 Corridor.

Chapter 24 – Ohio Governor: Throw the Bums Out

Joe Hallett, Columbus Dispatch

Riding the crest of a scandal-spawned tsunami that overwhelmed Ohio more than any other state, Strickland won by 23percentage points–60 to 37–in the most lopsided Ohio governor’s race since 1994. Ironically, that was year in which Republicans took total control of Ohio government by re-electing Gov. Bob Taft and Secretary of State Blackwell, along with three other Statewide down-ticket GOP executive office candidates; winning wide margins in both houses of the General Assembly; and securing 6 of 7 seats on the Ohio Supreme Court.

The scope of Strickland’s win was astounding: He took 72 of 88 counties, the most by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since the dawn of the 20th Century. The onslaught led by Strickland and fueled by voters’ disdain for the arrogance of one-party rule swept Democrats into 4 of the 5 statewide executive offices, dislodged GOP Sen. Mike DeWine, and enabled Democrats to cut GOP legislative majorities by picking up 7 seats in the Ohio House and 1 in the Senate, chambers gerrymandered to ensure Republican control against all odds.

…As the nation took a breath before preparing to refocus on Ohio in less than two years for the presidential campaign, America’s political epicenter suddenly had turned from red to blue.

Chapter 25 – Pennsylvania Governor: Incumbency Matters

G. Terry Madonna, Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College

Rendell’s victory demonstrated his ability to expand a voter base that was largely confined in 2002 to the southeastern part of the state. In 2002, Rendell won 18 of 67 counties, and 40 percent of his vote came from the Lehigh Valley and the Philadelphia suburbs–both in the ambit of the Philadelphia media market. In 2006, Rendell carried 33 counties, almost doubling his 2002 number, and won statewide by 830,000 votes out of slightly more than four million cast. He easily swept the two largest cities in the state, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and notably earned a huge 90 percent vote margin in his Philadelphia home base and even crushed Swann in “Steelerville,” Pittsburgh, by 80,000 votes. Perhaps more remarkably, the Governor won the four Republican counties in the Philadelphia suburbs with 70 percent of the vote, the largest percentage for a Democrat in modern Pennsylvania history.

The state turnout of 49 percent exceeded the turnout in the previous two mid-term elections, but more importantly for Rendell, 43 percent of the voters were Democrats compared to 38-percent Republican. Rendell won 90 percent of his own party vote and even managed to win one in five Republican voters. Self described moderates were 46 percent of the electorate, and Rendell won them by more than two-to-one, 67 percent to 33 percent. Independents constituted 20 percent of the voters and the Governor defeated Swann by more than two-to one among them (68 to 32 percent), essentially sealing Swann’s fate.

Chapter 26 – Maine Governor: A Reversal of Fortune

Jeff Tuttle, Bangor Daily News

It was the night of the June primary in the Maine governor’s race, and supporters of incumbent Gov. John Baldacci were eagerly awaiting a glimpse of their candidate. They had gathered that night at the Baldacci family’s Italian restaurant in the governor’s hometown of Bangor to watch the primary election results roll in on a small television perched in the corner. Then, shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m., the moment they had been waiting for arrived. As a local television station cut to and from the various election night headquarters around the state, cheers swelled from the Baldacci crowd when the scene shifted to their favorite candidate that night: Republican Chandler Woodcock.

The bow-tie wearing state senator and lay Baptist preacher was easily the most conservative among the three GOP candidates hoping to take on the struggling Baldacci, whose job approval ratings were barely breaking 40 percent at the time. Those behind Baldacci’s re-election bid made no secret they were rooting for Woodcock, who they thought would have a tough time attracting independent voters in the general election after working so hard to court the party’s rightwing during the primary.

When primary night was over, Woodcock, with strong support from the party’s conservative base, had bested two more moderate challengers for the nomination including the one Democrats feared the most, state Sen. Peter Mills, a country lawyer with a moderate reputation and–many pundits thought–a good chance at knocking Baldacci off in November. Whether Maine’s Republicans knew it or not that night, Mills’ defeat and Woodcock’s nomination marked the beginning of the end in what would prove to be a frustrating, three-month effort to reclaim the Blaine House.