Democrats Smell Victory in Kentucky Gov. Race

Who would have thought it?

Democrats think they are about to steal the governor's mansion in the solidly red state of Kentucky. On Tuesday, voters will choose between Democrat Steve Beshear and incumbent Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher.

Statewide opinion surveys suggest Democrats have every right to be gleaming with hope ahead of the election. Some polls show Beshear ahead of Fletcher by more than 20 points.

Four years ago, Kentucky residents made Fletcher the state's first Republican governor in three decades, but his re-election chances are in trouble, because of his scandal-plagued first term.

Fletcher and several members of his administration were indicted on charges that they illegally rewarded political supporters with state jobs. The indictment was later dropped after Fletcher admitted wrongdoing by his administration.

For some time, the Fletcher campaign has described the controversy surrounding his administration's hiring practices — which was led by a Democrat — as a "political witch hunt."

Fletcher campaign spokesman Jason Keller told ABC News last week that "the media polls are not reflecting how tight the race is getting," and that Bluegrass State residents are more concerned with the governor's views on education, health care, and economic development.

Whatever the case may be, Fletcher has paid a heavy political price since the hiring controversy, losing support from key state Republicans — including his own lieutenant governor Steve Pence.

Pence decided not to seek re-election with the governor in the GOP primary, and endorsed Fletcher's strongest primary challenger, former Rep. Anne Northup. She based her campaign on the argument that Fletcher could not defeat Democrats in the general election.

The Republican Governors Association had a substantial investment early in the contest, on the air with television ads for Fletcher. In fact, Democrats in the state complained that Republicans were acting illegally by working in coordination with the Fletcher campaign.

But the RGA has, since, virtually pulled out of the state, in what could be viewed as a sign that it thinks Fletcher's fate is all but certain.

In contrast, up until the very last days of the race, national Republicans made a big play in Louisiana, where Rep. Bobby Jindal won the gubernatorial contest on Oct. 20 without a runoff election.

Jindal benefited from the fact that Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco deemed the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina too severe to mount a successful re-election challenge, and decided, instead, to focus her energies on the recovery efforts underway.

Fletcher has been trying to link Beshear to a scandal involving the Kentucky Central Life Insurance Company, perhaps hoping to deflect criticsm from his own ethical problems.

The charge focuses on Beshear's work for a law firm which represented Kentucky Central, a company that was forced to let go of 800 employees when it underwent liquidation.

Fletcher's attempt to tie Beshear to the controversy does not seem to have reshaped the overall dynamics of the race.

The influential labor organization, AFL-CIO, sensing victory, has mobilized volunteers in a get-out-the-vote effort that they think will boost statewide voter turnout.

Labor forces in Kentucky would love to have the ear of a Democratic governor who would, in theory, be more sympatheic to their concerns.

The Democratic Governors Association has been funnelling money into a progressive organization known as the Bluegrass Freedom Fund, who've helped drum up support for Beshear.

'08 Senate Race and Mitch McConnell

If Democrats do end up winning Kentucky's governor's mansion, they may be emboldened to step up their effort against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2008.

Outside progressive groups have been targeting McConnell for his ties to President Bush, and for his support of the Iraq war. McConnell clearly did not embrace Fletcher's re-election by staying neutral in the Republican primary, but he has been out the last few weeks of the campaign, making an appeal for Fletcher.

Democrats are eager to turn their likely victory in Kentucky into a continuation of a 2006 storyline that proved successful for them, painting the GOP as the insider party in power that invites scandal by operating in a corrupt manner.

However, with Democrats now in charge on Capitol Hill, and polls showing that the public is very dissatisfied with Congress, it may be tough to keep that argument going.

Elsewhere in '07

Even with deeply religious Democratic candidate John Eaves and his "who do you serve" progressive message on the ballot, Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., looks like he's on his way to a second term. Eaves is running a self-funded campaign, while Barbour has avoided most of the criticism other politicians endured for their handling of the recovery in the region after Hurricane Katrina. Former Clinton administration secretary of agriculture Mike Espy has endorsed Barbour's re-election.

Although there are no same-sex marriage amendments, or some of the more controversial ballot measures from 2004 and 2006 brewing in the states this year, voters in half a dozen states will deal with interesting questions relating to social issues and taxes. Among the more relevant topics this year, is a vote in New Jersey on bonds for stem cell research.

In Utah, residents will consider whether they want to keep a school voucher program, passed by the state legislature, that would reward between $500 to $3,000 to households to help public school children choose between competing private schools — one of the nation's broadest school choice programs.

The National Education Association has already spent millions trying to defeat the referendum. The Republican-controlled Utah legislature passed the voucher law in February, but the law was suspended before taking effect.

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