President Bush and the Republicans had a good night last Tuesday. In winning the two governorships decided that evening, conservative Republican candidates made history on historically Democratic turf.
Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher became the first Republican governor of Kentucky since 1967 and did so with a handsome 55% of the vote against state Atty. Gen. A.B. (Ben) Chandler III, grandson of A.B. (Happy) Chandler, the revered one-time commissioner of Major League Baseball, who served Kentucky as a governor and U.S. senator. In unseating Mississippi’s Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove with 53% of the vote, former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour became only the second Republican governor in that state since Reconstruction.
These Republican gubernatorial victories came one month after Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger took the California governorship in a much-watched special recall election. In just two weeks, Republicans could make it four straight if the polls are correct and former Bush Administration official Bobby Jindal defeats Democratic candidate Kathleen Blanco in the November 15 Louisiana governor’s election.
The message is obvious: One year before President Bush faces reelection, the national political trend remains unambiguously Republican, as key Republican issues continue to resonate well with voters. Fletcher, Barbour, Schwarzenegger and Jindal are all strong opponents of tax increases and have called for rolling back various Democrat-imposed taxes in their states.
Fletcher benefited from scandals surrounding the administration of outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton. These included an allegation that Patton had retaliated against a former mistress by turning state regulators loose on a nursing home that she owned.
“The time was clearly ripe for a Republican governor here,” said veteran Kentucky political consultant Mark Wilson, who noted that national Democrats “threw Ben Chandler out in front of the bus by telling him to run against the ‘Bush-Fletcher’ economy. That clearly didn’t resonate with folks here and, in the last weeks of the campaign, he backed away from it.”
President Bush and Vice President Cheney both raised money for Fletcher, and Bush appeared at pre-election rallies on behalf of the Republican hopeful in western Kentucky and in the southeastern part of the state. These likely contributed to down-ticket victories for the GOP. Winning handily were lawyer Trey Grayson and former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, the Republican nominees for secretary of state and agriculture commissioner.
Bush drew a cheering crowd of 9,000 to a Barbour campaign rally one week before the election. Vice President Cheney and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also jetted to Mississippi to weigh in for the conservative Barbour, who helped engineer the famous Republican congressional victory of 1994.
Musgrove was badly damaged after he broke his 1999 no-tax pledge and divorced while serving as governor. He denounced Barbour for his and background as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist. Barbour wryly observed that neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton nor any well-known Democrat campaigned for Musgrove. The governor, deadpanned Barbour, was running away from his party “like a scalded dog.”
All told, a good evening for Republicans and, they hope, a sign of things to come next year.