Larry Dale Keeling: Williams, Richie not the stuff of dreams

Star power fizzled in GOP's effort to unseat beshear

Contributing columnistNovember 13, 2011 

Initially touted as Kentucky Republicans' "Dream Team," the gubernatorial slate of David Williams and Richie Farmer instead proved to be the party's worst nightmare of recent years.

Yeah, I know this year's numbers weren't as bleak as 1999, when the GOP went to the gubernatorial ball with Peppy Martin.

But 1999 qualified as a self-inflicted nightmare. Republican leaders made a conscious decision not to take a serious run at then-Gov. Paul Patton, at least partially to make a statement about the difficulty of beating an incumbent with public financing and spending limits in effect. Without a name Republican in the primary field, Martin and her prom dress waltzed into the general election.

This year, though, Kentucky R's went with what they considered major star power — a longtime state Senate president widely hailed as one of Frankfort's savviest politicians, joined by a University of Kentucky basketball legend who had posted some serious vote total stats in two successful campaigns for agriculture commissioner.

Game over, right? Incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, largely relegated to the status of caretaker chief executive by woeful economic times and Senate Republicans' stonewalling of his initiatives, might as well start packing for the return trip to his Bluegrass farm.

Or so the R's hoped in the blissful aftermath of the Dream Team's formation. But a funny thing happened on the way to the expected victory lap. The Williams-Farmer campaign imploded — big time.

Well, "imploded" could be too strong a word. Imploding, as in bursting inward, would require some expansion by the campaign subsequent to its formation. In retrospect, though, the highlight for Williams and Farmer was the day they announced their alliance. After that, the blahs began.

So, it may be more appropriate to say the campaign just shriveled up and died.

Facing two relatively unknown and poorly funded slates in the primary, the Williams-Farmer pairing failed to get a majority of the R vote. Embarrassing? You betcha.

After the primary, the campaign never gained traction, never cut into the wide polling lead the Beshear-Jerry Abramson slate maintained throughout the summer and fall and never generated the kind of money it took to pose a serious threat in this race.

Even the $4 million and change Williams' father-in-law spent to finance independent groups' ads attacking Beshear and promoting Williams didn't help.

Rather than providing a popularity antidote for the mountain of negatives Williams accumulated over a decade of autocratic rule in the Senate, Farmer's own negatives began to pile up as his spending habits in the Agriculture Department drew criticism and his wife filed for divorce in mid-campaign.

Late in the campaign, Williams evoked comparisons to Attorney General Jack Conway's misguided Aqua Buddha ad in the 2010 U.S. Senate race by trying to rally the Republican base with criticism of Beshear for participating in a Hindu ceremony at a plant opening. But Williams threw up an air ball with his faith-based Hail Mary.

Had Farmer opted to run for lesser statewide office, he likely would have been favored to win and may have received considerably less scrutiny. As for the divorce, well, a lot of us have been there, done that, bear the scars from the experience and can empathize with those going through the process.

Eight years as, say, secretary of state followed by eight years as treasurer added to his eight years as agriculture commissioner would put Farmer in sight of a comfortable retirement — without ever breaking a sweat. Running with Williams was by far the riskier option for him this year.

If some promises were made to get him to do so, Farmer can only hope they will be honored because political promises are broken easily and often.

A few years after Senate President John "Eck" Rose finished third in the 1995 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a handful of Senate D's joined with Republicans to vote him out of power. House Democrats didn't need any help to oust former Speaker Jody Richards a couple of years after his poor showing in the 2007 primary.

So, the thumping Williams took Tuesday sparked immediate speculation that he would get the boot as Senate president, perhaps as soon as the 2012 General Assembly session.

I suspect his tenure in the now-posh president's office will be shortened as a result of his poor showing in this election, but there may be some constitutional impediments to removing him in the middle of his current term. The 2013 organizational session seems a more likely time for a change of leadership — unless he steps down voluntarily.

Of course, I've been wrong before. Maybe Senate Republicans will ignore any constitutional concerns and prove me wrong again. Williams' "My caucus made me do it" excuse for all his boorish behavior and obstructionism over the past decade could provide them ample reason for doing so.

During his time leading the Senate, Williams has earned a well-deserved reputation as a short-tempered, vindictive bully.

I have little doubt those traits will remain on display throughout the rest of his tenure as the chamber's leader — however long it may be — despite his election night declaration that he emerged from this campaign "a new and improved David Williams."

However, the thing about bullies is they sometimes pick the wrong fight and wind up getting their butts kicked all over the schoolyard. It happened to Williams Tuesday.

When he took his act to a statewide stage, the big, bad "bully from Burkesville" who cowed the Senate — and others in Frankfort — for so many years turned out to be nothing more than a cupcake from Cumberland County.

Larry Dale Keeling of Frankfort is a retired Herald-Leader editorial writer and columnist. Reach him at ldkeeling@yahoo.com.

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