Politics & Government

Fletcher's woes not over in party

Bruce Pope has been in the trenches over the last three decades during the Republicans' steady rise from the nearly irrelevant minority to the rival force of the longtime Kentucky Democratic machine.

Now Pope, a former McCracken County Republican Party chairman, and other GOP activists across the state say they're concerned about their party's future, particularly when it comes to keeping control of the governor's office.

Some Republican officials lately have been publicly musing over Gov. Ernie Fletcher's chances for re-election.

But the backbone of the party remains the enthusiasts who put up yard signs, knock on doors and attend candidates' rallies. Many of these GOP faithful said in interviews this week that support for Fletcher has given way to disappointment.

Pope, for instance, said that -- despite this week's settlement that ended the 15-month hiring investigation and removed Fletcher from the cloud of being indicted -- he's still afraid that Republicans' effort to elect Fletcher have been for naught.

"When I interact with people here in Paducah where so many are Democrats, it's almost that they feel sorry for me. They think, 'Here's a guy who's worked so hard for so long,'" Pope said. "That's fine. I feel sorry for me and for all of us who worked so hard for this opportunity to govern, too."

Pope said he doesn't believe the legal settlement will change Fletcher's political fortunes.

In the deal approved by a judge Thursday, Fletcher took responsibility for any improper state hirings in exchange for Attorney General Greg Stumbo's dropping three misdemeanor charges against the governor.

State merit employees who felt they were unfairly pushed out of jobs or passed over for promotions or positions because others had political ties to the administration can still make their case to the state Personnel Board.

"I don't know if it takes the noose off of the governor's neck," Todd Inman, a Daviess County Republican, said of that settlement. "But it probably puts a little slack in it. The question is what he does from here."

But Inman said support for Fletcher among Republicans began eroding before the hiring investigation started in May 2005.

"It happens when you have a Republican governor after so many years. You have a lot of pent-up demand, not just for jobs, but for access," he said.

For whatever reason, the perception has been that Fletcher didn't meet those lofty expectations of keeping strong connections with the rank-and-file activists that worked on his behalf.

"Grass-roots Republicans who haven't been reached out to from the governor's office in many months or possibly in a few years aren't going to want to walk door-to-door or put bumper stickers on like they did in '03," Inman said.

Fletcher has said that he still has strong support throughout the state. The governor also has been touring counties more often recently, delivering checks for road improvements and law enforcement equipment for communities.

For those in his party who have been critical of him or voiced frustration, Fletcher said Thursday "my door is always open to them."

Generally, rank-and-file Republicans fall into three categories:

 Those who have thrown in the towel on Fletcher and want a new Republican to run in '07.

 Those who like Fletcher but are open to an alternative GOP nominee.

 And those who are die-hard Fletcher fans.

"I think the numbers of those folks have shrunk over the three years without a doubt," Inman said of the core supporters.

The governor still has some outspoken ones, though.

Bill Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass, says Fletcher hasn't been effective with politics but is "number one in policy."

He said Fletcher must play up his record of reorganizing the state's Medicaid system and pushing a bill that dropped several hundred thousand low-income Kentuckians off the tax rolls.

Likewise, Mary Lou Wright, an Elizabethtown Republican, ardently defended Fletcher -- and criticized Republicans for considering running against him -- at a recent state GOP meeting.

Helen Hansford, a state Republican Central Committee member from Somerset, said Thursday morning after shaking hands with Fletcher at the Farm Bureau breakfast in Louisville that she still likes the governor because "he's a good man."

But "I always have an open mind because who knows how things may go," she said.

On Tuesday, two days before the settlement, Fletcher drew roughly 100 people to a fund-raiser in Bowling Green at the posh brick home of auto dealer Jim Johnson.

On his way into that event, lifelong Republican Ed Dyer, said Fletcher "has done a good job" and should get more credit for helping to get a state budget passed on time this year for the first time since 2000.

"I hope that he can get re-elected," Dyer said.

Both Inman and Pope said the key question will be whether Fletcher can reconnect with activists and show them firm leadership.

One of the reasons U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is largely revered in GOP circles is because he set up a network, is responsive to those supporters and returns often to Kentucky to help elect other Republicans, Inman said.

"They want somebody to lead. They look back to Ronald Reagan's era. He and his administration led and they felt comfortable with that leadership," he said.

"They thought maybe they had one for Kentucky in Ernie Fletcher. It didn't happen."