Republican Woes in Kentucky

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When hundreds gather for Thursday's Kentucky Governor's Annual Ham Breakfast at the state fair, it's a safe bet that the draw will be the prized ham — which last year brought a record $340,000 at auction — and not Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The governor, whose 2003 election capped nearly a decade of prior Republican gains in the once-Democrat-dominated state, finds himself with few friends and a growing list of potential challengers from within his own party. His tenuous re-election prospects — and the distancing from Fletcher by the state's Republican chieftain, Senator Mitch McConnell — suggest that his grip on the Governor's Mansion is shaky.

Indicted in May for allegedly orchestrating a statewide patronage scheme, Fletcher won a courthouse reprieve earlier this month when a special judge ruled that he can't be prosecuted for official misconduct while in office. But State Senator David Williams, a fellow Republican, pointedly notes that the ruling does raise "the specter of impeachment."

Yet that may be the least of the governor's worries. With less than a year to go before the 2007 primary, Fletcher's challenge is to keep from losing his job the old-fashioned way: in the voting booth. "There is a real chance he can lose the primary," said longtime political writer Al Cross, who now heads a rural journalism institute at the University of Kentucky. "He lacks the confidence, apparently, of most of the leaders of his party."

But saying "most of the leaders" of the state's Republican Party is simple southern courtesy in Kentucky. The only leader the state party has had for more than a decade is McConnell, who telegraphed the 1994 national Republican rout in his home state. In a special election that spring, McConnell convinced Newt Gingrich to throw the national party's weight behind Ron Lewis, an unknown Christian bookstore owner, who stunned bluegrass politicos by taking the U.S. House seat held for 41 years by Democrat Bill Natcher. (Natcher had died while in office, creating an open seat, which Lewis won by beating a long-time Democratic leader of the State Senate.)

But just as out-of-power Democrats across the U.S. are casting 2006 as their version of the Republicans' 1994, Kentucky Democrats are smelling blood as Fletcher's problems mount. All the while, McConnell has uncharacteristically stayed out of the fray, and kept his focus in Washington, where he is deputy Senate majority leader and Bill Frist's heir apparent. "McConnell was absolutely right in singling out [then-U.S. Rep.] Ernie Fletcher as the candidate most likely to win the governorship," in 2003 said John David Dyche, a Louisville lawyer and political columnist. "But [McConnell] has not been involved in the administration itself. He assumed a basic-level competence that did not materialize."

More than a dozen of Fletcher's aides were indicted last year on charges that they helped orchestrate a hiring scheme for low-level state jobs based on political support. Fletcher was criticized from all sides when he issued a blanket pardon covering every member of his administration, save himself, for actions related to the indictments. But outright challenges to his leadership did not materialize until this summer, following his own indictment in May in connection with the case.

McConnell's silence — which Dyche believes is intentional — has left others, including Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to call for Fletcher to quit after a single four-year term. "There is a basic worry that if the governor is on the ballot in the fall, he can't win against the Democrat," Grayson in an interview Wednesday. Grayson said he has spoken twice this month with McConnell about his plans, but said they were private conversations. McConnell declined comment. "We ran last time on a campaign aimed at cleaning up Frankfort, with changing the culture in Frankfort," Grayson, a 34-year-old Harvard Law grad says, "and that hasn't happened."