Politics & Government

Governor's incumbent advantage faltering

This governor's race already is promising to put the power of incumbency to the ultimate test.

Four years after becoming the first Republican Kentucky governor in three decades, Gov. Ernie Fletcher is setting out to keep his job under increasingly difficult circumstances.

He starts with some tactical advantages that come with the office. But other political tools that would have helped him in his re-election quest have been dropped or lost along the way.

Incumbency failed to shield Fletcher from being challenged by his fellow Republicans.

Typically in most states, an incumbent governor seeking re-election has a clear path to his or her party's nomination.

Of the 26 governors running for re-election in 2006, just five faced serious enough primary challenges that they garnered less than 75 percent of the vote. Alaska's governor, Republican Frank Murkowski, was the only one ousted by his party's voters.

Paul Patton -- the first Kentucky governor enabled by the 1992 election law changes to run for consecutive terms -- not only ran unopposed in the 1999 Democratic primary but drew only a nominal challenge from Republican Peppy Martin that fall.

Fletcher, however, must fight for his political life just for a chance to make it to the November general election against the Democrats. Billy Harper, a millionaire construction company owner from Paducah, and now Anne Northup, the former congresswoman from Louisville, are challenging Fletcher in the GOP primary. Harper has spent more than $2.5 million on the race so far; Northup is expected to kick off her campaign this week.

House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover, who's in talks with Northup about becoming her running mate, said last week that Republicans are looking for "an alternative for various reasons."

Fletcher has been dogged by political problems and has failed to re-inspire a chunk of the GOP base.

"They are looking for someone to rally behind," said Hoover, of Jamestown. Still, incumbents generally have three other major advantages heading into an election:

n The ability to travel from city to city on the state's dime.

n Access to road funds and state contracts that can be used to leverage support from local officials.

n Control of the party's structure and network of activists. But even those are a mixed bag for Fletcher.

Traveling Kentucky

The governor's schedule in recent months has usually kept him out of the capital for three days a week.

Most of the events revolved around handing local officials ceremonial checks representing money for road and development projects.

Recently, he has sprinkled in town hall meetings to talk about a projected budget surplus.

Brett Hall, Fletcher's former communications director, made it a priority to get the governor out and about soon after Hall came on board in September 2005. At that time Fletcher had visited just half of the state's 120 counties in his first 11/2 years in office.

Hall prodded the governor to step up the pace. Fletcher kept it up even after Hall left the administration last summer.

Just since Dec. 1, Fletcher has scheduled events in 27 counties.

A point of concern for Fletcher is that all that mileage hasn't helped his approval rating, which according to Survey USA's December poll is 31 percent -- down slightly from 33 percent in September 2005.

Doling out money

Several Republican lawmakers have said that they would back Fletcher largely because he's been kind to their districts.

The General Assembly approved selling $200 million in bonds to give the governor a pool of road construction money that he can hand out at his pleasure.

"The governor has a lot of discretion, and we'll have to factor that in," said Sen. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green. "I don't want to imply that the governor will work with some and not others ... It's just a lot of people have to deal with the administration every day in a lot of different ways."

State Rep. Jamie Comer, R-Tompkinsville, said last week that he hopes Fletcher doesn't threaten to pull funds from or ignore areas represented by lawmakers who support one of the governor's opponents.

"I think the governor is above doing stuff like that," Comer said.

Tapping an organization

Meanwhile, state Republican Party leaders have signaled over the last 18 months that they're not under Fletcher's control.

In 2005, Fletcher failed to oust party Chairman Darrell Brock Jr. And Fletcher couldn't even get one of his loyalists on the GOP's state central committee.

The party's executive director, Michael Clingaman, has ties to Northup. He was her campaign manager during her tough but successful 2002 congressional campaign.

At the same time, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose statewide network helped Fletcher raise money and campaign in 2003, has made it clear he won't be working on Fletcher's behalf, especially in a primary contest.

"In my part of the state, the McConnell organization has never committed one way or the other in the Republican primary," said Comer. "That organization is up for grabs."

Fletcher can call upon the network of the several thousand people he has appointed to state boards and commissions.

But it remains to be seen how well that group can be organized.