Washington Dems see opportunities in the Kentucky gubernatorial race

Washington Democrats will be closely watching the results of the Kentucky gubernatorial race next month as they look for opportunities for victories in next year’s Senate and congressional races.

With former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) leading substantially in most state polls, Democrats are hopeful that a Democratic win in what has been an increasingly red state could spell trouble for the state’s congressional Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Murkowski blasts Trump's election claims, calls House impeachment appropriate MORE (R).

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been dogged by charges of ethical problems throughout his one term, but he was able to hold off a primary challenge early this year from former Rep. Anne Northup (R). Fletcher appears to be in significantly more trouble in next month’s general election, and national Democrats believe that is a harbinger of things to come in the commonwealth.

Despite the divisions the state GOP faced after Northup’s run, the state’s Republicans have rallied around Fletcher, who has consistently trailed Beshear by about 20 points in most polls.

McConnell, who faces reelection next year, and Sen. Jim Bunning (R), who narrowly won reelection in 2004, have publicly endorsed Fletcher and appeared in ads on his behalf. Bunning himself was nearly defeated in 2004 by Daniel Mongiardo, who is now running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with Beshear. Mongiardo, a political unknown, came within 2 percentage points of unseating Bunning in a result that suggests Kentucky Republicans, and even McConnell, can’t take victory in the Bluegrass State for granted.

Washington Democrats were caught off guard by Mongiardo’s success and were unable to help the challenger, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), with Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) at the helm, appears determined to be ready for McConnell.

The DSCC and other independent 527 groups have been targeting McConnell with ads in the state throughout much of the year, and have tried to make hay of McConnell’s slipping approval rating, support for the Iraq war and, most recently, his hand in the president’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill.

Though a credible Democratic challenger has yet to come forward, a Beshear win over Fletcher, Democratic officials insist, would inspire credible candidates to toss their hats in the ring for matches against McConnell and the state’s four Republican congressmen.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman at the DSCC, said most state Democrats have been waiting on the sidelines for the governor’s race to end.

But even without an opponent, Miller said, the minority leader has hurt himself.

McConnell has risked his fortunes next year by aligning himself so closely with an incumbent governor with anemic approval ratings and increasingly gloomy prospects for reelection, Miller said.

“Mitch McConnell has spent a lot of political capital to try and get Ernie Fletcher reelected,” Miller said. “If Ernie Fletcher loses, that is a substantial loss for McConnell. McConnell put his own credibility on the line here, and if Fletcher loses, that is a reflection on McConnell as well.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) played more in Kentucky in last year’s midterms than in years past, and did come away with a victory when Rep. John Yarmuth (D) beat Northup. But Republican Reps. Ron Lewis and Geoff Davis both won handily despite the DCCC’s efforts in their districts.

After years of being convinced that they live in a red state, some Kentucky Democrats might begin to remember that their state voted twice for President Bill Clinton before it gave President Bush two landslide victories, officials there said.

Jonathan Miller, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the party is experiencing a rebirth of sorts after two crushing national elections. Miller said former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) essentially “gave up Kentucky before Labor Day.”

Bush beat Gore in Kentucky 57 percent to 41, and Kerry 60 percent to 40.

Miller said defeating Fletcher, the state’s first Republican governor in 38 years when he was elected in 2003, would be a step towards reversing that direction and fertilizing the ground for the Democratic presidential nominee to compete in the Bluegrass State next year.

A Beshear win would also be another victory for the oft-maligned 50-state strategy implemented by Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean.

Both the state party’s Miller and Beshear campaign manager Jim Cauley, who served as Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign manager in 2004, said Dean and the DNC have been very helpful with fundraising and other logistical support.

That support would be crucial if the party seriously tried to challenge McConnell next year.

GOP officials, not surprisingly, downplay suggestions that McConnell is vulnerable and that the Fletcher race has bearing on next year’s Senate contest.

Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said McConnell is an “icon” both nationally and locally, and it’s not fair to compare him to Fletcher, particularly since the Democrats don’t yet have a candidate.

“They have yet to prove to me why they think they can beat [McConnell],” Fisher said.

Cauley tends to agree that for any Democrat challenging an incumbent as well-funded and politically skilled as McConnell, that candidate will have to be firing on all cylinders despite the “climate of change” in the commonwealth.

“It’s going to take a hell of a race to beat that guy,” Cauley said.