Gov. Ernie Fletcher will survive a political scandal to win Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary election, but will be soundly defeated in November's general election by Democrat Steve Beshear, figures Northern Kentucky University political science professor Michael Baranowski.
Beshear, because of a crowded six-person Democratic primary field, won't get the necessary 40 percent of primary votes Tuesday to be the party's candidate, and will be forced into a runoff election against Bruce Lunsford, Baranowski forecasts. Beshear will win the June 26 runoff, Baranowski said, and then have an easy time of it in November against Fletcher. "Fletcher is going to get slaughtered," he said.
No matter what the outcome happens to be, it's a fascinating election year in Kentucky, said Baranowski, with a good old-fashioned scandal prompting two Republicans to challenge a sitting GOP governor and a half-dozen Democrats anxious to oust a politically wounded incumbent. "Kentucky politics is a full employment act for political reporters and political scientists," said Baranowski. "There's nothing like Kentucky politics, especially this year."
Fletcher, stung by a patronage scandal, is being challenged by fellow Republicans Anne Northup of Louisville, who formerly served in Congress and the state legislature, and by Paducah businessman Billy Harper. "I think the fact that Fletcher is facing such a strong challenge in the first place is an indication of general dissatisfaction in the Republican Party," said Baranowski. "That is something that has been said by the media, but also most clearly by (Republican U.S.) Sen. Jim Bunning and, to a lesser extent, by (Republican U.S.) Sen. Mitch McConnell."
As for how voters will react to the scandal Tuesday, Baranowski figures that depends in large part on where they live. "In Northern Kentucky, Fletcher is going to rack up some pretty good margins," he said. "There's a sense that Fletcher has been very good for Northern Kentucky."
Baranowski expects Fletcher to be weakest in Northup's hometown of Louisville. But, he doesn't see Northup pushing Fletcher aside. "I expect Fletcher to win, and I don't think a runoff will be necessary on the Republican side," he said. "I think Northup ran sort of a disappointing campaign.
"She ran a very anti-Fletcher campaign, and I think that's how most people identify her. She framed herself as the alternative and that's not a very strong platform. Some negative campaigning can certainly work, but if a campaign is fundamentally negative, voters ask why they should vote 'for' that candidate."
Northup isn't helped by the presence of another alternative candidate - Harper - - in the race, Baranowski said. "Harper is going to pull more votes away from Northup than from Fletcher," he said. "I think Harper is going to hurt Northup."
While Fletcher has been tainted by the patronage scandal, he's been able to partially offset it, at least in his own party, said Baranowski. "Fletcher has a natural advantage in that it's good to be the governor, especially in Kentucky," he said. "The governor is a powerful guy. He is the person handing out the big checks."
While Fletcher's incumbency may be enough to help him survive in his party's primary, it won't be enough to offset the scandal in the November general election, when Democratic voters will eagerly capitalize on it, figures Baranowski.
But, he doesn't expect a clear-cut Democratic candidate in Tuesday's primary. "Beshear is the leading candidate, but I don't think he's anywhere close to getting 40 percent. If there were only two or three candidates, I could see him getting over 40 percent, but not in a six-person field. My guess is that Beshear's runoff opponent will be Lunsford. His polling numbers have held up pretty well for a while."
Beshear, a former lieutenant governor, should beat Lunsford in a runoff because of Beshear's positive image in Democratic circles and because of Lunsford's support of Fletcher in the 2003 election, said Baranowski.