Kentucky GOP's high profile in D.C. doesn't translate to state elections

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Kentucky Republicans lost handily in the Tuesday's state elections, a surprisingly poor showing for a state that boasts as kingmakers the U.S. Senate minority leader, U.S. House Appropriations Committee chairman and a popular public face of the tea party.

State-level GOP losses were a tsunami of bad timing, lower fundraising and a candidate at the top of the ticket who's so unpopular he earned the pejorative moniker, "Bully From Burkesville," political experts said. Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear won a second term Tuesday with 56 percent of the vote.

Republican State Senate president David Williams got 35 percent and independent Gatewood Galbraith finished with nearly 9 percent, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State's election tally.

But Democrats should not hope that the so-called Blue sweep at the top of the state's election ticket is a harbinger of similar changes on the federal level, said Don Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky's two U.S. senators, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are both Republicans. The state went red in the 2008 presidential election, with 57 percent of voters supporting Sen. John McCain and 41 percent casting votes for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Eight out of the past nine governors in Kentucky have been Democrats. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, served one term as governor from 2003 to 2007.

"I don't think Democrats should be encouraged that the entire state of Kentucky will turn around and embrace Barack Obama, but it does show that the Democratic Party can win if they put forth good candidates," Gross said. "I would even say that extends to the Senate level."

The loss also reflects a disconnect between the strength of GOP federal candidates versus those for state office, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

"What it says most importantly is that (Republicans) nominated a truly awful candidate for governor. People have to like a candidate in order to vote for him," Sabato said. "This particular individual had offended large portions of Kentucky."

During the campaign, it was discovered that Williams' father-in-law, Terry Stephens, was the sole contributor to Restoring America, which spent $1.365 million on television ads that criticized Beshear and complimented Williams. Williams took a stance opposing expanded gambling — a position which was unpopular with GOP horseowners.

Although Sen. Mitch McConnell did some fundraisers and a bus tour with Williams during the election season and on election night and said the election results do not diminish Williams' "considerable accomplishments or distinguished public service," there was little that could be done to salvage the state lawmaker's image problem, political experts said. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, declined to discuss the election results.

Sen. Rand Paul, as a relative newcomer to the state's political scene, saw the party's broader losses as part of the state's trend toward favoring Republicans in federal offices and Democrats in local offices.

"Kentucky is a conservative state," Paul said. "There has been an anomaly that many Democrats will vote for Republicans for federal office but they think the state Democrats are conservative enough to vote for."

Republicans also say Beshear's incumbency and stronger fundraising and Williams' drubbing in local media all led to his loss.

"David took 10 years of absolute beatings from the state's papers in the editorial pages and it showed," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican political strategist and former George W. Bush administration official who consulted on the Williams campaign. "I firmly believe he took a beating few politicians take, and I think some of that beating was undeserved."

Williams also was outspent.

Beshear had more than $10 million in his campaign war chest. Williams' campaign took in about $2 million but relied on almost $4 million in contributions that his father-in-law, Russell County businessman Terry Stephens, made to outside political groups that ran ads critical of Beshear and complimentary of Williams. Galbraith and his running mate, Frankfort marketing consultant Dea Riley, raised less than $200,000.

Williams' loss — much like that of Richie Farmer, who campaigned for the lieutenant governor's position even as he faced a public divorce and questions about spending in his state office — cast a down-ballot pall, political experts said.

"It's one of those circumstances where at the top of the ticket Republicans had some problems with candidates," Gross said.

Jack Brammer, Beth Musgrave and Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this report.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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