Kentucky is one of just four states electing governors this year, and the race—pitting Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear against a Republican nominee to be chosen in a primary on May 17—will be colorful and could be close.
Sometimes called a purple state, Kentucky may be better described as politically confused. There are three registered Democrats for every two registered Republicans, but Republicans have held both U.S. Senate seats since 1998, occupy four of the state’s six congressional seats, and have enjoyed a majority in the state senate since 1999. Yet the GOP has elected just one governor since 1967, and he served only a single, controversial term.
The silver-maned Beshear, 66, has been in state politics seemingly forever. A preacher’s son from tiny Dawson Springs in western Kentucky, Beshear served in the state house of representatives from 1974 until being elected attorney general in 1979. He climbed the commonwealth’s political ladder as high as lieutenant governor before losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1987. -Beshear landed in one of the state’s largest law firms, settled on a farm outside Lexington, and took to the life of the Bluegrass equine elite as if born to it.
He returned to politics in 1996 to challenge Mitch McConnell, the man who was on his way to transforming Kentucky into a bona fide two-party state and becoming Senate Republican leader. That campaign is best remembered for McConnell’s ridicule of Beshear’s membership in an exclusive hunt club. McConnell supporters, including a character dressed in full red riding regalia, shouted “Tally ho!” during Beshear’s public appearances.
McConnell soundly beat Beshear even as Bill Clinton was carrying Kentucky for the second time (and no Democratic presidential candidate has carried it since). The defeat seemed the political end for Be-shear, who returned to his comfortable private life until 2007. Having long coveted the governorship, Beshear jumped into a crowded field of Democratic contenders eager to take on Republican Ernie Fletcher, who was embroiled in turmoil over political hiring and weakened by myriad minor embarrassments.
Beshear barely avoided a runoff primary, but went on to best Fletcher easily in the fall. He promptly failed at his one and only campaign promise of bringing some form of expanded gambling to Kentucky to help both the beleaguered horse industry and strapped state coffers. Beshear’s three years as governor have been little more than a series of forced budget-cutting measures and claims of credit for the ideas and initiatives of others.
Kentucky drew national attention last year as Rand Paul, the personification of the Tea Party, won the GOP Senate primary over McConnell’s preferred candidate. Paul went on to trounce Democratic dream candidate Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election. This surprising libertarian triumph in a culturally conservative state that has long suckled on federal largesse set the tone for the gubernatorial campaign now underway.
Recent public polling puts state Senate president David Williams of Burkesville well ahead of two Louis-villians, businessman Phil Moffett and county clerk Bobbie Holsclaw, for the Republican nomination. Williams has been the state’s second-most powerful politician since Republicans captured the state Senate via party switches in 1999. His encyclopedic knowledge of state government, pugnacious style, and serial parliamentary triumphs have made Williams the favorite bogeyman of Kentucky’s reflexively liberal mainstream media.
Williams, 57, won a state house seat in 1984 and moved to the state senate two years later. He was among the few Republicans who supported a controversial 1990 education law funded by a tax increase. In 1992 Williams was his party’s sacrificial lamb against then-U.S. Senate majority whip Wendell Ford, the ultimate expression of the faction-ridden Democratic politics that dominated the commonwealth from the Civil War to the McConnell era.
Seeking to offset his negative public persona as “the Bully from Burkesville,” Williams convinced state agriculture commissioner and University of Kentucky basketball folk-hero Richie Farmer to be his running mate. Farmer hails from Clay County, deep in eastern Kentucky coal country, and was a schoolboy legend before becoming part of the 1992 U.K. squad nicknamed The Unforgettables. A last-second shot by Duke’s still-reviled Christian Laettner deprived them of a trip to the Final Four, but Farmer’s number now hangs from the Rupp Arena rafters to honor his role in restoring the program’s prominence after NCAA probation.
To say that being a basketball star is helpful in Kentucky politics is like saying Secretariat was a nice horse. The taciturn Farmer, who only recently abandoned a Haldeman-worthy crew cut and still sports a formidable Freddie Mercury-style mustache, is a proven vote-getter. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, Farmer’s wife has just filed for divorce, and hostile reporters are ramping up critical stories questioning his conduct and management in his current office.
Moffett, a political novice, had hoped to reprise the role of Rand Paul as Tea Party phenomenon. But Williams saw it coming, allowed not a sliver of light to pass between Paul and him during the former’s Senate crusade, and has defended his right flank effectively. Lacking name recognition, Moffett’s Internet “moneybombs” have been duds.
Holsclaw, a popular local politician in the state’s largest city, could have been a contender for a lesser position like secretary of state. Her meager fundraising—only $12,648 on hand in the most recent reports—suggests that the governorship is out of her league. One blogger derisively refers to Holsclaw as “Paula Deen,” playing on the candidate’s considerable resemblance to the culinary celebrity.
Mistaken identity may be Hols-claw’s best hope, but some think the extremely low turnout predicted for the primary makes anything possible. The last two GOP primaries averaged 18.5 percent participation, and 15 percent of the state’s registered Republicans reside in Holsclaw’s home county. McConnell, who was chastened by his ineffective endorsement of Paul’s opponent last year and now has his hands full in Washington, has prudently returned to his preferred posture of primary neutrality.
Although Beshear has no primary, he is already spending some of his nearly $5 million campaign war chest on advertising. His running mate this time around is Jerry Abramson, who finally appears on a statewide ballot after serving five terms as Louisville mayor. Abramson’s principal purpose may be fundraising, but the verbose urban Jewish liberal may play poorly in rural Kentucky. He left multiple messes from his final mayoral term, but the same media that are putting a full-court press on Farmer will probably give Abramson a pass.
Having apparently abandoned expanded gambling, which admitted casino patron Williams blocks on policy rather than moral grounds, Beshear touts his management of state finances through tough times and some economic development successes. Williams says the state is “adrift,” and in the recently completed legislative session offered a bold platform featuring immigration, neighborhood schools, state pensions, and tax reform. The two locked horns over how to fill a Medicaid shortfall, with Williams trying to turn his abrasiveness into an asset à la Chris Christie in New Jersey.
Williams wants Kentucky to participate in the movement for fiscal sanity that Republican reformers (and many reformed Republicans) are carrying to Washington and state capitals around the country. Beshear is the poster boy for business as usual, but will be favored over any GOP nominee. If that person is anyone other than Williams, the campaign will be over before it begins. If it is Williams, however, Kentucky could treat the nation to an entertaining and quite spirited political horse race come autumn.
John David Dyche is the author of Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Senator Mitch McConnell and writes a political column for the Louisville Courier-Journal.