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.
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.
A recent Courier-Journal poll put McConnell's approval rating at a respectable 54 percent despite months of attack ads and made-for-media street demonstrations by the pro-surrender left. McConnell's parliamentary skill has so effectively frustrated Senate Democrats that they yearn to knock him off, as Republicans did Tom Daschle. A formidable campaigner with a gift for hard-hitting but humorous attack ads, McConnell will make sure the race is more about his opponent and Hillary Clinton than it is about him.
After losing to Fletcher for governor, Chandler, the grandson of former governor, senator, and baseball commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler, beat McConnell's hand-picked candidate for the open congressional seat from which he now eyes the 2010 Senate race. Bunning says he will seek another term, but barely battled back from multiple missteps and not-so-subtle suggestions of senility in his last campaign. If the feisty baseball Hall of Famer heads for the showers, the likely frontrunners will be two GOP congressmen, Geoff Davis of northern Kentucky's Cincinnati exurbs and Ed Whitfield from the state's far west.
The Republican tide may have receded in Kentucky, but the commonwealth remains reliably to the right of center. But if the Bluegrass GOP hopes to rebound, it will have to more broadly emulate McConnell's consistent example of combining conservative policy with competent political execution.
John David Dyche is a Louisville lawyer and columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal.