FRANKFORT — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appears to have a stronghold on his party's nomination as he prepares to seek re-election next year, but at least one Republican looms as a formidable potential challenger.
If next year's primary election were held now, a new Kentucky Poll shows that Beshear would best House Speaker Greg Stumbo by 27 points — 55 percent to 28 percent — in a hypothetical matchup. The telephone survey of 500 likely Democratic voters, conducted May 2 to 4, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Stumbo has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Beshear, but says he remains focused on winning re-election to his House seat in November. "If I'm lucky enough to do that, I will seek the Speaker's office in January," he said.
If Beshear gets the nod from Democrats in 2011, he could face a stiff challenge from Republican Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, one of four seniors on the 1991-92 University of Kentucky basketball team known as "The Unforgettables."
In a hypothetical Beshear-Farmer contest in November 2011, Beshear leads by 7 percentage points — 44 percent to 37 percent — with 19 percent undecided, according to the general election portion of the poll, which surveyed 600 likely voters from all political parties. That portion of the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll, conducted by Research 2000 of Olney., Md., was commissioned by the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville.
The Beshear campaign's political director, Chad Aull, had little to say about the poll. "We are not really worried about polls right now — we are worried about getting a budget," Aull said.
Beshear, who has already raised more than $1.9 million for his re-election efforts with Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson as his running mate, has said he would call a special legislative session this month in hopes of getting the House and Senate to agree on a state budget. Much of state government will shut down on July 1 if the impasse is not resolved.
Farmer, who said in October that he is considering a run for governor, was flattered and gratified with the poll results, said spokesman Bill Clary. But he has not yet made any decision about his political plans, Clary said last week.
Farmer has "good numbers," said Danny Briscoe, a Louisville political consultant and former state Democratic Party chairman. "I think they reflect his popularity, but who knows what they would be once his views on various issues are made known."
Senate Republican Leader Robert Stivers, who, like Farmer, hails from Clay County, said the poll shows that Farmer "would be a viable candidate for governor."
"Any time you have a poll that has an unannounced candidate and he's within the margin of error, then that is very good for him," Stivers said.
Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Steve Robertson said the poll shows that Kentuckians think Beshear is "a do-nothing, one-issue governor" and that Farmer is in "a position of strength" for his political future. Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Charles Moore could not be reached for comment.
For Beshear, the numbers are "troublesome," Briscoe said.
"If you're the incumbent in office for three years and below 50 percentage points in a poll, that's a problem," he said.
Both Beshear and Farmer got 42 percent of the vote from men. Women gave a nod to Beshear — 46 percent to 32 percent.
Democrats and Republicans were loyal to their party's choice. Seventy percent of Democrats backed Beshear, while 73 percent of Republicans favored Farmer.
Among independent voters, 42 percent selected Beshear and 29 percent chose Farmer. Twenty-nine percent were undecided.
The poll also asked about Beshear's job performance. Forty-six percent approved while 43 percent disapproved. Eleven percent were not sure.
That is up from a May 2008 Kentucky Poll that showed Beshear with a 39 percent approval rating and a 55 percent disapproval rating. That poll was taken soon after the 2008 General Assembly in which Beshear failed to get lawmakers to approve expanded gambling.
In October 2008, a Kentucky Poll showed Beshear with a 57 percent approval rating and a 33 percent disapproval rating.
Aull said the governor was gratified with the support shown for his job performance.
More women approved of Beshear than men — 51 percent to 41 percent — and nearly two-thirds of Democrats approved of Beshear's work, compared to 26 percent of Republicans.
Among independent voters, Beshear's approval rating was 45 percent.
With a solid base of Democrats behind him, Beshear would be hard to unseat in a primary election, Briscoe said.
"The poll, to me, shows that if someone is going to run against the governor in a party primary, he had better have a well-organized, well-financed campaign," he said.
Poll results for the 2011 Democratic primary showed Beshear well ahead of Stumbo in every major subgroup.
He plays best with black voters, beating Stumbo 63 percent to 22 percent. Stumbo's best showing was with men, who favored Beshear 54 percent to 30 percent.