Politics & Government

Legislators could hold key to primaries

FRANKFORT - The General Assembly unwittingly or purposely could play a role in determining the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor this spring.

Consider this: the law requires a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in a party's primary if no one receives 40 percent of the vote in the May 22 election. The runoff election would happen a month later.

And with multiple prospective candidates from each party making noise about jumping into the race, a runoff is looking more likely.

Enter the legislature.

In 2002, lawmakers approved a clause that nullified what was then the decade-old runoff provision for the 2003 governor's race.

But the General Assembly forgot to take up the issue in 2006. Lawmakers still could when they return for the bill-passing portion of their session in February.

And by that point, the Jan. 30 filing deadline for governor will have passed, so everyone will know the Republican and Democratic contenders.

You can bet that all the candidates, their supporters and particularly their loyal backers in the General Assembly will be deliberating and calibrating the political benefits of keeping the runoff or ditching it.

"This time around, the runoff might make the difference," said Rep. Harry Moberly, a Richmond Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

Moberly has made no secret of the fact that he'd support a ticket that includes his good friend and fellow Richmond resident, Sen. Ed Worley, the Democrats' floor leader. Worley has said he's been in "serious discussions" with Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, who spent $8 million of his own money in the 2003 Democratic primary before dropping out.

"There's so much speculation, and it's so subjective as to who it would benefit," Moberly said. "It clearly could be an issue."

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, said House Democrats haven't taken a position yet on the runoff.

"The conventional wisdom is that it would help the candidate with the most money," Richards said. "That person would be able to go right back in and campaign."

At the top of that list are the prospective candidates, such as Lunsford or Paducah Republican Billy Harper, who have enough wealth to bankroll their campaigns.

Richards said he is generally opposed to runoffs because they can be "expensive and seem kind of unnecessary."

He has an ally there in the state's county clerks, who would have to set up the runoff and fund it out of their already tight budgets.

The clerks oppose a runoff because it would mean putting on back-to-back elections within a month, said William I. May Jr., lobbyist for the County Clerks Association.

An organized campaign by the clerks in opposition to a runoff could provide political cover to those who want to toss out the runoff.

Of course, not having one leaves the possibility of a candidate winning a heavily populated primary with just a fraction of the vote.

"If you have a crowded field and a person gets the nomination with 20 percent of the vote, that's not in anybody's best interest," said Democrat Brereton Jones, who was governor when the election reforms and runoff provision passed in 1992.

He added that changing the rules in the middle of the game is "bad government."

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee, said he's also not a big fan of rewriting the rules. "However, there may be sentiment in the Senate to change it that I'm not aware of. We'll just see how it plays out," he said.

One historic runoff

Kentucky has experienced a runoff election just once. And like many tales from the annals of the commonwealth's political history, it's a fascinating story.

In the 1935 governor's race, then-Lt. Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler was one of five Democrats seeking his party's nomination. He and Gov. Ruby Laffoon had had a falling out, prompting Laffoon to back Russellville politician Thomas Rhea.

So as soon as Laffoon left Kentucky on a trip, Chandler called a special legislative session. (The lieutenant governor, in those days, assumed all gubernatorial powers whenever the governor crossed the state line.)

Chandler then pushed a bill calling for the top vote-getter in the primary to be that party's automatic nominee, instead of being officially chosen at a party convention. When Laffoon returned, he had an amendment tacked onto that bill calling for a runoff if no candidate received a majority.

Ironically, Laffoon's man Rhea beat Chandler in the primary but didn't gain the required majority. Chandler then went on to beat Rhea in the runoff by 26,000 votes.

Seventy-one years later, Chandler's grandson has played a bit part in perhaps setting up the next great runoff story.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, the Democrat's front-runner for governor, announced two weeks ago that he wouldn't run, helping set up an expected crowded primary and possibly a runoff, or not, depending on what the legislature does.