Politics & Government

Western Kentucky will be key battleground in race for governor

FRANKFORT — Supporters of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican nominee David Williams already are eyeing battle lines in the state for what is expected to be a contentious contest this fall for governor.

A review of how each of Kentucky's 120 counties voted in Tuesday's Republican primary election for governor shows Williams and his running mate, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, dominated in Eastern Kentucky and Southern Kentucky and did well in rural areas of Western Kentucky.

Still, the winning GOP ticket did not get 50 percent of the GOP vote statewide and floundered against underfunded Tea Party favorite Phil Moffett of Louisville and his running mate, state Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville, in the so-called "Golden Triangle" between Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky. That region of the state is home to all the Democratic nominees for state constitutional offices this fall.

Williams also trailed Moffett in Western Kentucky counties with large cities — Daviess, Warren and McCracken.

The state's key political battleground will remain Western Kentucky through Nov. 8, said House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville.

The area is Democratic in registration but conservative in political ideology.

Beshear, a Clark County attorney, is expected to constantly remind folks in Western Kentucky that he was born in Dawson Springs, while counting on his running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, to help run up a large victory margin in Louisville.

Meanwhile, the rural ticket of Williams, the Senate president from Burkesville, and Farmer, a popular University of Kentucky basketball star in the early 1990s from Clay County, must make heavy inroads in Western Kentucky's cities while finding a way to remain competitive in the Lexington area.

"I would have the governor and Mayor Abramson spend much time in the west," Clark said Wednesday.

Beshear was in Murray Wednesday to announce 75 new jobs at a vinyl products plant and in Owensboro to announce energy efficiency and homeland security grants. Williams had interviews with radio talk show hosts in Louisville and Lexington. Though geography is important in politics, the personality of Beshear and Williams will be more important than an "urban-rural split" in the state, Clark said.

"President Williams will have to play to the right to get Tea Party support and when he does that, he will lose some moderate Republicans and that will help Beshear pick up more Democrats," Clark said.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, agreed with Clark that too much emphasis is put on an urban-rural divide in the state.

"Williams and Farmer are popular in Eastern Kentucky and south-central Kentucky, and will be strong there in November," Hoover said. "The biggest key in the race will be turnout based on enthusiasm."

Republicans also "will make President Obama an issue every chance they can get," Hoover said.

Obama is not popular in the state, primarily because of policies on coal and health care.

"He couldn't get a cup of coffee in Kentucky with a $10 bill," said Larry Forgy, a Lexington attorney and Republican who lost the 1995 governor's race.

House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, predicted that Williams and Farmer will continue to have difficulty in urban areas, in part because of media scrutiny.

"In the urban areas, President Williams has a challenge because of the heavy media coverage," Stumbo said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

Stumbo said both Beshear and Williams are qualified to be governor, but "I do believe Gov. Beshear will prevail because he has done a good job."

Stumbo also said he thinks many Tea Party movement members will "stay home" in November.

"Many of its people helped Moffett in the Tuesday Republican primary, and I don't think they can come around to Williams, who has been in state government several years," he said.

Harmon, Moffett's running mate, said he is not sure if their supporters will switch allegiance to the Williams-Farmer ticket in the fall.

"I think some of them will, but some of them won't," he said.

Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, attributes Williams' less-than-stellar showing Tuesday in urban areas to the Tea Party.

"The Tea Party seems more organized in urban areas," he said.

Lasley also said support for expanded gambling in the state, which Williams opposes, probably is stronger in urban areas and weaker in rural areas.

Lasley agreed with Hoover that enthusiasm will be key in the race.

Beshear is in a stronger position as an incumbent governor than Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher was four years when he sought re-election but had to contend with a state hiring scandal, Lasley said.

"But neither side this year has built up the enthusiasm necessary to win," he said.

Lasley predicted that Beshear will "play it safe for a while. He's probably in the lead at this point. He's played it safe as governor."

Williams is at his best, Lasley said, when he is aggressive.

"He's a fine speaker and can excite a crowd with his aggressive comments," he said. "He will leave no shots unfired in this race."

It's not certain at this point how often Kentuckians will see Beshear and Williams debate each other.

Asked Tuesday night if he is willing to debate Williams, Beshear said, "I'm sure we will be seeing each other a lot on the campaign trail."

Williams, responding to a reporter's question about debating Beshear, said, "I'll debate him on numerous times. You ought to ask him if he plans on debating me. That's the real question."