Keeling: GOP infighting takes spotlight off Democrats

more power in state means more division

Herald-leader columnistDecember 1, 2013 

FRANKFORT — For much of my career as a Kentucky journalist, from those early days when I was a respectable reporter of "just the facts" on into my latter years as a disrespectful purveyor of curmudgeonly opinion, most of the fun I derived from observing the state's political scene involved feuding within the Democratic Party.

With the exception of 1995, when former Gov. Paul Patton narrowly defeated Republican Larry Forgy, the heavy lifting by successful gubernatorial campaigns occurred when faction squared off against faction in Democratic primaries during the three decades prior to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's 2003 win over Democrat Ben Chandler.

After the General Assembly started asserting its independence in the early 1980s, a Democratic House majority knocked heads with a Democratic Senate majority over policy and pork until party switchers gave Republicans control of the Senate in 2000.

House Democrats still knock heads with Senate Democrats on occasion (they also knock heads with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and with each other), but those aren't the important fights anymore.

Despite this long history of infighting and the near certainty they will once again prove to be their own worst enemies at some point in the future, Democrats for the moment have taken their knives out of each other's backs and joined hands to confront a common enemy: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Major Democratic wannabes looking at the 2015 governor's race aren't (yet) sniping at each other openly or upstaging Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign to send McConnell back to private life after 30 years in the Senate.

Beshear, whose bitter relations with former state party chairman Jerry Lundergan date back to the 1970s, at least publicly is on board in support of his rival's daughter. (Of course, this particular détente could end quickly if Andy Beshear's run at the attorney general's office interferes with Grimes' Senate race.)

So, with state Democrats all making nice and blowing air kisses at each other, where does one turn for fun and fireworks?

Why, to the Republicans, of course.

Long known for their lockstep conformity and adherence to the same set of talking points, Kentucky Republicans lately have taken to fussing and fighting like, well, a bunch of Democrats.

I attribute this to the party's recent ascendance in the state. When you're a relatively powerless minority, you may find it wise to adhere to Ben Franklin's advice about everyone hanging together or, most assuredly, hanging separately.

But when you start winning and winning and then winning enough to gain some power, jealousies and perceived slights start to mean a little more.

This Republican infighting dates back at least to the time some prominent party members, including McConnell, left Fletcher hanging separately after he issued blanket pardons during his administration's hiring scandal. But it has never been as pronounced as we've seen lately.

Louisville businessman Matt Bevin leads a Tea Party insurgency against McConnell. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer delivers a speech in 5th District U. S. Rep. Hal Rogers' backyard, calling out unnamed Republican bigwigs by telling them they don't control him and to stop pushing him or anyone else to jump into the 2015 governor's race now just to force Democratic wannabes' hands and thereby detract from Grimes' fund-raising ability. (Does anyone not know which bigwigs Comer had in mind?)

State Sen. Chris Girdler, a Rogers protégé, fires off a column to state newspapers questioning Comer's maturity and calling him "out of control."

Fun stuff, real fun stuff. When Kentucky Democrats do get back to their own backstabbing, they're going to have to up their game to be taken seriously as feudists again.

A final thought about Comer: His Somerset comments struck me as a declaration of independence from a guy who is comfortable being his own man and charting his own path. Immature? Heck no, that's the very definition of real maturity.

Add the courage he displayed by asking a Democratic auditor to review his fellow Republican Richie Farmer's years as agriculture commissioner.

Throw in the political skill that enabled him to win passage of hemp legislation. (Whether or not it ever benefits Kentucky farmers, he got it done against some strong opposition.) You begin to get the notion he could be someone both parties will have to reckon with in the future.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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