Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Party Healing Crucial

From the Kentucky Post:

Stung by a critical television ad his opponent ran late in the 2003 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Bruce Lunsford didn't just drop out of the race in protest - he also crossed party lines to support the then-Republican nominee Ernie Fletcher in the fall election. Both Lunsford and Democrats have regretted that decision ever since.

Fletcher, of course, went on to earn an easy win over Ben Chandler that put the Republicans in the Governor's Mansion for the first time in three decades. And Lunsford - again trying to become the Democratic nominee for governor - has struggled to win back party loyalists who say he betrayed them. It was a good lesson in how the party has to get behind the nominee, said Lunsford's press secretary Adam Bozzi, who calls the candidate tougher, wiser and more prepared for the harshness of politics. "He's not going to make that same mistake twice," Bozzi said.

As voters head to the polls today to select the major party nominees for the November governor's race, the specter of the 2003 race looms as a shadow over party activists smarting from a competitive primary. Regardless of the outcome of today's election - or of the June 26 runoff, should there be one - leaders of both parties say it's critical, urgent even, that the various candidates and their supporters put aside their differences and unite behind their nominee. Republicans have scheduled a Unity Rally for Saturday at state GOP headquarters and have meetings of both the party's central committee and executive committee, presumably to talk about fall strategy, set for June 2.

Democratic candidates, meanwhile, all signed a pledge committing them to a "Democrats United 2007" theme back in February. "The people of this state are tired of negative campaigning, tired of inter-party bickering," Chairman Jerry Lundergan said about the initiative.

But coming together could prove challenging for several reasons:

On the Republican side, the incumbent Fletcher and his chief opponent, former Louisville Congresswoman Anne Northup, have begun running ads, issuing press releases and making speeches attacking each other with increasing intensity. Other than calling Fletcher "unelectable," the third candidate, Paducah businessman Billy Harper, has tried to stay out of the fray.

Bridging the gap between the Northup and Fletcher camps could prove more difficult because the divisions are thought to be deep - conventional wisdom says that Northup was recruited to the race by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is not known to be a big fan of the governor.

On the Democrat side, the tenor has been slightly less caustic but almost as divisive simply because of the sheer number of candidates - seven Democrats, each with their own following, were in the race until state Treasurer Jonathan Miller dropped out May 7. Now there are six: former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear; longtime Speaker of the House Jody Richards; former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry; Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith; Eastern Kentucky demolition contractor Otis Hensley and Lunsford.

This year, for the first time in Kentucky political history, the primary result might not determine the November candidates. A relatively new law forces a two-candidate runoff election on June 26 should the top candidate in each party not get 40 percent of the primary vote. A runoff would essentially lengthen the primary season by five weeks and create the possibility of a brutal head-to-head campaign that could widen party divisions. Naturally, leaders from both parties say they will have no problem patching up differences before the fall, but to what extent that's true or a self-fulfilling prophecy is arguable.

On the Republican side, Northup has ripped Fletcher's administration as a scandal-ridden embarrassment and has run from the beginning on the message that she's the better candidate because he's unelectable in the fall. Fletcher has berated her constantly for being "negative" and calls her campaign rife with "hypocrisy."

Northup's strategy is gutsy and risky, said Kevin Sell, GOP chairman of the 4th Congressional District in Northern Kentucky. But a lot of its impact will depend on how it's perceived. If voters and Fletcher supporters take it personally on a gut level, then there could be some problems, he said. Or they could see it as an acceptable primary-type strategy and move on. He personally thinks things have been OK - so far. "Is it aggressive? Absolutely. Does it cross the line? Not necessarily," Sell said.

Fletcher spokesman Marty Ryall dismisses the attacks in the GOP primary so far as "internal squabbling" not unlike what families have. The governor hasn't seen or heard anything that would keep him from reaching out to Northup and Harper should he win or supporting them should he lose. "You don't get very far in politics without have a thick skin," Ryall said. "Sometimes things are said in the primary and sometimes during the general election that you wish they hadn't said those things, but ... you move on."

It helps that in the 2003 election, Fletcher's primary opponent, former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson, enthusiastically threw her support to Fletcher for the general election campaing, Sell said, unlike what Lunsford did with Chandler. That has created an expectation of professionalism and class among Republican candidates - "humble in victory and gracious in defeat," Sell said.

And then there's this - Republicans who don't line up behind the nominee can basically write off their political future because they won't get party support, Sell said. Justin Brasell, chief of staff for Northern Kentucky's congressman, Geoff Davis, said fears about party disunity are overblown. Most of the fighting is among a very small group of party activists who represent a tiny percentage of the electorate, he said. Come November, everything will be fine, he said.

Davis, who has made a calculated decision to remain neutral in the primary, will strongly support the nominee no matter who it is, Brasell said. As such, Davis and other GOP members of Kentucky's federal delegation can do much to bring the party back together simply by example, Brasell said. Democrats, not surprisingly, have a different view of the Northup-Fletcher attacks. The Republican primary "is going to leave some scars," said Democrat Paul Patton, who was governor from 1995 to 2003. "It's been pretty rough."

In contrast, the Democrats have been more polite, although not entirely so. Henry recently decided to pull two TV ads that attacked Lunsford's business record and Beshear's record as attorney general, another position he held. And after a recent debate, several candidates attacked Beshear's support for expanded gambling and his use of the state plane while lieutenant governor. But those attacks were "fair," said Lundergan, the state party chairman, because they focused on issues and stances and statements. "I don't think those were personal attacks," he said.

Patton, who is a former party chairman in addition to governor, agreed, saying so far there's not been "anything for anybody to get upset about."

That could change with a runoff, which by its nature could get a little more contentious, Patton said. And he, too, has heard some Democrats say they remain so upset at Lunsford that should he be the nominee, they'll stay home Election Day or vote Republican. But he scoffed at those statements, saying in the end Democrats will be motivated by the mere presence of Fletcher in the governor's seat. "Even if there's a contentious run-off, there won't be 100 Democrats who will be so upset they won't vote or will vote for a Republican," Patton said. "Having been out four years, we'll be anxious to get behind whoever the nominee is."

And that nominee can do much simply by reaching out to the losing candidates and ask for their support. "Sometimes that's all it takes," Patton said.

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