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February 21, 2006

Bluegrass Report: Fletcher’s post-pardon blues

As Gov. Ernie Fletcher sails into his third tumultuous year in office — after having arrived as the heroic new captain of the USS Kentucky Republican Party — the rough seas are only getting rougher for him, and there appears no sign of smooth sailing anytime soon. Last week was certainly one of the worst storms he has experienced in some time.

Fletcher not only battled health problems related to problematic gallstones, he also suffered a stinging defeat in two legislative special elections in Louisville, the first time voters have gone to the ballot box since he pardoned all members of his administration last August in the on-going Merit System criminal investigation.

While Fletcher’s health problems have stabilized and his doctors believe he will fully recover from complications after surgery, the prognosis isn’t as good for his political future.

Since his December 2003 swearing-in as Kentucky’s first Republican governor in 32 years, it’s been all downhill for Fletcher & Co. His fellow Republicans’ attitudes toward him have moved from ambivalence to irrelevance to flat-out radioactive following last week’s rebuke by Louisville voters who, in recent polls, disapprove of his job performance by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.

Last Tuesday, those voters were asked, finally, to fill the year-long vacancy in the 37th Senate District, which remained unfilled after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Indiana resident Republican Dana Seum Stephenson ineligible to serve in that seat, after she narrowly defeated Democrat Virginia Woodward in 2004.

Following a divisive battle within the Democratic Party about whether Woodward should get another shot, the nomination went to Rep. Perry Clark, over the loud objections of many Democratic women.

Seizing on that opportunity, Louisville Republicans opted against the unanimous, hand-picked male candidate of Frankfort leadership, and went with a woman, fresh-faced 33-year-old outsider Debbie Peden. That further fueled the anger of Democratic women.

Peden was well-funded from the outset, and while the special election was a short sprint for an unknown candidate, she quickly scored points by painting Clark as outside the mainstream because of his flirtations with militia groups, support for fringe Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche and assertion that 14-year-olds should have the right to marry. The usually reliable Democratic-leaning editorial board of The Courier-Journal also took Clark to task and endorsed Peden.

Then came the true test — whether Peden could shake the political albatross that is Fletcher. Democrats quickly painted Peden as someone who would carry the governor’s water in Frankfort. Peden just as quickly pushed Fletcher away, declaring her opposition to his anti-union budget proposals. It didn’t work.

Last Tuesday, voters sent a strong message. They held their collective noses and elected Clark, 54 percentage points to 46. In a simultaneous special election for Clark’s newly vacant House seat, Democrat Ron Weston took more than 70 percent of the vote.

Fletcher never personally campaigned for Peden, but there was no doubt he was the single issue in this election. It was the first opportunity since Fletcher’s August 2005 pardons for the voters to cast a ballot. And they did so loud and clear.

Democrats quickly spun the victories as evidence of the resurgence of their party. But most observers saw it as the first nail in Fletcher’s political coffin, setting the stage for more unpleasant electoral outcomes later this year. It possibly could portend more Democratic pick-ups in the state Senate, with the outside possibility of picking up three net seats and regaining control of the chamber they lost in 1999.

Apart from the ballot box, though, Fletcher’s political standing in Frankfort continues to hamper his chances of accomplishing anything that might help reverse his political fortunes. Following last month’s budget address, Republican leaders immediately dismissed any chance that Fletcher would succeed with his anti-labor agenda. Even conservative religious leaders and the most right-wing of editorial boards panned his idea of teaching creationism in science classes.

Even more troubling for Fletcher is that he can’t even buy love, with Louisville’s Democratic legislators nonplussed at the offer of $75 million in state money to build a new downtown arena. In fact, some believe Fletcher’s advocacy for a new arena — by itself — has scared legislators away, fearing the fallout of standing alongside him or supporting any part of his political agenda.

You never say never in politics, but Fletcher’s long-term survival following his battle with the post-pardon blues isn’t looking so good.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of political blog BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org