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Republicans on a Roll

The GOP picks up two more governorships, making it three big wins in the last month. Is this a trend?

11:30 AM, Nov 5, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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WHEN WE HEAR that old saw about how local issues prevailed on Election Day, you can be sure of one thing: Republicans won. And of course Republicans did on Tuesday, capturing the governor's races in Kentucky and Mississippi. In both contests, there are important national implications that favor Republicans.

So forget the "it's-all-local" line, which was the media's early take on Tuesday's election, just as it was after the California recall on October 7, in which a Democratic governor was ousted and 62 percent of Californians voted for a Republican replacement. Sure, local issues matter. But they aren't the whole story, especially a year before a presidential election.

Let's start with Mississippi. Haley Barbour, the Republican candidate for governor, came with a well-known background in national Republican politics and the Washington lobbying community. Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove pounded him as an outsider who didn't have a feel for the concerns of average Mississippians. Nonetheless, Barbour didn't shy away from his Republican connections in Washington. He played them up, promised to exploit them as governor, embraced President Bush, and brought him into the state for a campaign appearance.

Barbour won handily, 53 to 46 percent. And the victory was not only over an incumbent governor, but in a state that hasn't realigned fully at the state level. Democrats still control both houses of the state legislature. Barbour is the second Republican governor of Mississippi. At best, he benefited heavily from having an "R" by his name. At worst, it didn't hold him back.

Then there's Kentucky, where U.S. congressman Ernie Fletcher, the Republican, whipped Democrat Ben Chandler for governor by 55 to 45 percent. Kentucky has been trending Republican. All but one House member and both senators are Republicans, and Bush won the state easily in 2000. But until Tuesday, Kentucky hadn't elected a Republican governor in 32 years. The trend there continues.

Chandler's big campaign theme was to link Fletcher to Bush and blame both of them for a supposedly wretched economy in Kentucky. Like Barbour, Fletcher welcomed the tie-in with Bush. He, too, invited Bush to campaign for him, which the president did last weekend. By no stretch of the imagination can a case be made that Bush hurt Fletcher--quite the contrary.

Now, did the sex scandal that tarred the current Democratic governor, Paul Patton, make things difficult for Chandler? Of course it did. It was a huge issue. But that doesn't mean there was no national angle in the race. There was. Democrats attacked Fletcher for his connection with Bush. The attacks failed, maybe even backfired.

Putting Kentucky and Mississippi together with California, we can draw some national conclusions. We have a moderate border state, a conservative deep South state, and a liberal and Democrat-leaning West Coast state. Republicans triumphed in all three. In some cases--low taxes, spending restraint, opposition to trial lawyers--Republicans used the same issues, which seemed to work. The "R" next to a candidate's name was not viewed by voters as odious. The three wins may not constitute a national trend, but they certainly make Republicans feel a lot better about 2004 than Democrats do.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.