The Magazine

Their Own Worst Enemy

Kentucky's Republicans implode.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By JOHN DAVID DYCHE
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Ernie Fletcher took office in 2003 as only the eighth Republican governor in Kentucky history and the first elected since 1967. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 3-2 in the Bluegrass State, but Fletcher parlayed public disgust with the adulterous outgoing two-term Democrat Paul Patton into a 10 percentage-point victory over then-attorney general Ben Chandler.

The GOP then held both of Kentucky's Senate seats, five of its six House seats, and a first-ever majority of the state senate. Registration aside, more Kentuckians identified themselves to pollsters as Republicans than Democrats. Kentucky's political transformation from blue to red was almost complete, and the architect of this feat, Senator Mitch McCon-nell, set his bespectacled sights on the Democrats' last redoubt, the state's House of Representatives.

Four years later, polls put Fletcher's reelection bid 16 to 20 points behind Steve Beshear, a pedestrian Democrat last seen losing badly to McConnell in 1996. Chandler sits securely in Fletcher's former House seat mulling a run against McConnell's crusty Senate colleague, Jim Bunning, who will be 79 if he faces voters again in 2010. And Democrats even dream of defeating McConnell, their bête noire and the Republican leader in the Senate, next year.

Aside from the obvious effects of Iraq and President Bush's plunging popularity, what has happened to the Kentucky GOP? Simply put, self-inflicted wounds. McConnell himself still fares well in public approval and fantastically in fundraising, with a record $9.1 million already banked. But he's the exception.

The first major misstep occurred in the same 2003 primary that saw Fletcher, with McConnell's tacit support, beat two able and well-known foes for the gubernatorial nomination. For attorney general, Republicans inexplicably opted for an eccentric acquitted arsonist, erstwhile Democrat, and floor-covering salesman, Jack Wood, over a much more qualified candidate. Some sages attributed the upset to Wood's simple, solid sounding name, others to support from an anti-abortion activist group. Whatever the cause, Wood was not a credible general election candidate.

Enter Democrat Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, deep in the coal-rich Eastern Kentucky mountains. A wealthy plaintiffs' lawyer and longtime state House floor leader, the colorful, canny, and utterly unscrupulous Stumbo is a Robert Penn Warren character come to life. He overcame nasty paternity litigation, a drunk-driving charge, and some shady-looking land deals to breeze past Wood and into an office from which he could hector the wet-behind-the-ears Fletcher forces.

Fletcher's résumé was tailor-made for religious, authority-respecting Kentuckians. Before going to Congress from central Kentucky's Bluegrass region in 1998, he had been a fighter pilot, a lay Baptist minister, and a doctor. Fletcher promised to end the "good old boy politics of a bygone era," referring to the decades of Democratic dominance. But the pent-up demand for GOP patronage soon burst loose, and since Republicans had been wandering so long in Kentucky's political wilderness, the new governor found few experienced Frankfort hands to help him handle the flood.

Early mistakes earned Fletcher an image of incompetence. He tried to freeze out reporters from the state's largest newspaper, Louisville's longtime liberal bastion, the Courier-Journal. While perhaps satisfying at a primal partisan level, the strong-arm tactic was self-defeating at all others. Next came a brouhaha about terminating state park workers sporting tattoos, not exactly a firing offense in the eyes of Kentucky's rural everymen.

Kentuckians were badly embarrassed when Fletcher's airplane's transponder failed over restricted Washington airspace en route to the Ronald Reagan memorial service in June 2004. The unidentified craft caused evacuation of the Capitol, sending dignitaries like Margaret Thatcher scrambling. The top general at the North American Aerospace Defense Command almost ordered an F-16 fighter to shoot down the intruder. Unfazed by the furor and assuming an absurdly unjustified prominence, Fletcher positioned himself, Zelig-like, next to Secretary of State Colin Powell at the ceremony.

But this was all prelude. In May 2005, a disgruntled bureaucrat brought Stumbo information about Fletcher administration hiring improprieties. Instead of referring the matter to the state personnel board as Beshear had done when he was attorney general, the ambitious and hyperpartisan Stumbo persuaded a Frankfort judge (since retired and working for Beshear's gubernatorial campaign) to impanel a special grand jury. Amid a flurry of search warrants for computers and offices, Stumbo secured indictments of 13 Fletcher aides and associates.