Politics & Government

Old 5th no longer sure thing for GOP

FRANKFORT -- This state's strongholds of Republican voters generally have been thought to be in Northern Kentucky and the southern Kentucky area known as the Old 5th Congressional District.

But, surprisingly, in the last Republican primary for governor in May 2003, GOP voters around Louisville came out in the greatest numbers and boasted the highest turnout percentage.

Louisville, therefore, could play a key role in this year's Republican primary for governor depending on how GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher goes about trying to boost his low approval ratings in the Jefferson County area and whether a Louisville native, such as former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, jumps into the race.

Fletcher already has drawn at least one Republican challenger: Paducah millionaire Billy Harper.

Here's how the numbers break down, according to this Herald-Leader analysis:

 Jefferson County and neighboring Oldham and Bullitt counties had about 173,000 registered Republicans, of which about 40,000 voted in the primary for governor -- a turnout rate of 23 percent.

 Less than 10 percent of the 95,000 registered Republicans in Northern Kentucky went to the polls to vote for either Fletcher, former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson or then-state Rep. Steve Nunn in that primary.

 And 38,000 --or 16 percent -- of the 231,000 registered GOP residents in the 23 most Republican southern Kentucky counties voted.

"I think that goes to show that we have to focus more on voters here," said state Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello. "You can't assume that Republicans in the Old 5th will get out and vote. You have to work 'em."

Central Kentucky, which Fletcher calls home, also figured prominently in the 2003 Republican primary. About 31,000 of the 140,000 GOP voters in the 16 Central Kentucky counties came out to cast a ballot.

According to those figures, a Republican candidate who runs ads on Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and Hazard TV stations theoretically could reach 70 percent of all GOP voters who bothered going to the polls last time.

That's key because Kentucky is an extremely expensive state in which to run television spots. It often requires placing ads in high-priced out-of-state markets, such as Cincinnati, Nashville, Huntington, W.Va., and Evansville, Ind.

As for the weak turnout in Northern Kentucky, Secretary of State Trey Grayson -- a Republican who hails from Fort Mitchell --said people aren't as tuned in to the Kentucky political scene because the Cincinnati TV stations rarely cover it, it's expensive for candidates to run ads, and many voters have moved there only recently.

Democrats look west?

If Louisville is a Republican region ripe for the taking in this May's GOP primary, Western Kentucky could be a key area in the Democrats' contest.

After all, 16 percent of all voters who participated in the 2003 Democratic primary lived in one of the 23 counties in the far west. That gubernatorial contest was largely between then-Attorney General Ben Chandler of Versailles and House Speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green.

So far none of the tickets that have entered the 2007 primary call Western Kentucky home.

State Treasurer Jonathan Miller is from Lexington, and his running mate is Jefferson County Attorney Irv Maze. And even though former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear grew up in Dawson Springs, he's lived the last several decades in Central Kentucky. His running mate is Hazard's state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo. Otis Hensley, who ran a limited campaign in 2003, and running mate Richard Robbins are Eastern Kentuckians.

Candidates don't necessarily have to be from Western Kentucky to do well there. They just have to work to court those voters, said Danny Briscoe, a Democratic campaign consultant.

"I guarantee you they feel closer to Nashville than they do Frankfort," he said. "I think you go down there as a candidate and say, 'Let me tell you something: I'm going to come here once a month every month when I'm governor. I'm going to take care of infrastructure here.'''

It worked for Casey County native Wallace Wilkinson in 1987 when he took two dozen trips to Daviess County alone.

"Wilkinson carried every precinct in Daviess County," said Briscoe, who consulted for Wilkinson in that race. Wilkinson defeated three other Democrats who carried Daviess County in previous statewide contests: Paducah native and former governor Julian Carroll, former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. and Beshear, who had won it as a candidate for attorney general and lieutenant governor.

"I'm certainly hoping that others considering running would consider a Western Kentucky running mate," said Carroll, now a state senator. "It is vitally important that west Kentucky receive some attention."