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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After some political flailing, Fletcher held a surreal Capitol rotunda pep rally at which he announced pardons for everyone but himself. The governor described the indicted as good people, some of whom "have made mistakes because of inexperience, and a complicated, unclear merit law." He nonetheless fired several of them shortly thereafter.

Fletcher then took the Fifth Amendment before the grand jury, which issued three misdemeanor indictments of the governor in May 2006. A special judge ruled Fletcher immune from trial while in office, and Stumbo concluded the case might complicate his quest for higher office. So the antagonists struck a deal dismissing the charges against Fletcher in exchange for the governor's admission that "the evidence strongly indicates wrongdoing by his administration with regard to personnel actions within the merit system" and that Stumbo's actions were a "necessary and proper exercise of his constitutional duty."

In an immediate about-face, an unapologetic Fletcher ridiculed Stumbo's investigation as "a political witch hunt" while seeking renomination against two challengers. The first, a hot-rodding millionaire businessman, Billy Harper, was a political novice. The second, former representative Anne Northup, had just lost the -Louisville congressional seat she had held against all odds and Democratic efforts since 1996. Both warned Republicans that the merit system mess made Fletcher unelectable.

Harper dumped $6 million into his quixotic quest. Northup started late and went negative before statewide voters really knew her. She came off as a shrill Catholic from Louisville, not the best blend in more provincial precincts. Fletcher ran ads portraying himself as a bullied little schoolboy and survived with 50.1 percent of the primary vote. Beshear, meanwhile, won a 41 percent plurality in a six-candidate Democratic field.

In an attempt to change the subject from his merit system problems, Fletcher seized on Beshear's signature issue of bringing casino gambling to Kentucky. Although Kentucky is at the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt, parimutuel horserace wagering, a state lottery, and ubiquitous bingo parlors have probably paved the way for the sort of full-blown casinos its citizens see flourishing just across its borders. When that issue did not move the needle, Fletcher began badgering Beshear about his law firm's lucrative role in liquidating a large insurance company. Calling it "Kentucky's Enron," Fletcher accused Beshear of conflicts of interest, covering up a critical report, and profiting handsomely at the expense of the company's bereft employees and shareholders.

Despite his myriad difficulties, Fletcher has compiled an impressive record of conservative accomplishments. It includes comprehensive revenue-neutral tax reform that stabilized state finances and liberated approximately half a million Kentuckians from state income tax; four years of surplus; fewer state employees; model Medicaid reform; higher education funding and teacher pay; and crackdowns on dangerous and road-destroying overweight coal trucks. To his supporters' dismay, he has insufficiently emphasized these successes.

When seeking his first term, Fletcher published a 52-page policy platform. Badly behind Beshear, he has offered no positive agenda Kentuckians can support, much less rally around.

Although Fletcher's overall record compares favorably with those of his Democratic predecessors, he has failed to overcome the fallout from his stumbles. He invited voters to hold him to a higher standard, then fell short. Folks might have forgiven him if he had apologized. But now he is running out of time and money to turn things around.

To the consternation of Fletcher loyalists, McConnell stayed more or less mum throughout the Stumbo ordeal and primary campaign. He could not condone the administration's errors or make things better by commenting. McConnell's main concern was minimizing damage to the party he had painstakingly nurtured and to his own political prospects. He now stumps with Fletcher, but faces the unpleasant prospect of running next year with an old Democratic nemesis in the governor's mansion.

McConnell's Senate leadership responsibilities have also put him increasingly in the bull's-eye back home, as he has carried the Bush administration's sagging banner on controversial issues like Iraq and immigration reform. Stumbo is considering the '08 Senate race, but Democrats are desperately trolling for a more savory option, preferably someone who can self-finance. The most mentioned propects suffer from a charisma deficit, so speculation centers on soon-to-be reelected state auditor Crit Luallen. She is smooth as single-barrel bourbon, but suffers from association with Paul Patton and would need a ton of national money.