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August 24, 2011

Why Williams won’t win

State Senate President David Williams is in a steep, uphill fight to replace Gov. Steve Beshear. Courier-Journal columnist John David Dyche recently asserted he can win.

But he probably won’t.

A Courier-Journal/WHAS-TV Bluegrass Poll conducted by SurveyUSA a month ago showed Democrat Beshear leading Republican Williams by 24 percentage points (52 to 28 percent, respectively). Independent Gatewood Galbraith drew 9 percent, while 11 percent remained undecided.

“Only one modern Kentucky Republican has trailed so badly in August and won in November,” wrote Dyche of Mitch McConnell’s 1984 race against then-U.S. Senator Walter “Dee” Huddleston.

So Williams’ deficit isn’t insurmountable. But there was worse news for his campaign: 36 percent of voters surveyed don’t like him. The headline of a May 8 Lexington Herald-Leader profile said it all: “David Williams fighting ‘bully’ label in run for governor.”

The poll’s margin of error is 4.4 percent.

It implies a slim margin for campaign missteps or even missed opportunities. And it’s a manifesto for a sympathetic facelift to soften the harsh lines.

Since then, the resignation of Williams’ campaign manager conveyed disarray. And the annual Fancy Farm picnic, where candidates eat smoked meat and try to skewer their opponents to dead meat, showed Williams off his game. Amid a red-faced rant, Williams looked angry, hardly the image the “bully from Burkesville” needed to convey. His messages were devoid of wit or charm — two signature assets he needs to succeed.

The worst was a textbook case of pot-meet-kettle projection: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail — and that’s what Steve Beshear’s world looks like,” Williams said.

“Steve Beshear is so weak, he makes Jack Conway look like a tough — well, you know the rest of the phrase,” he added, referring to Conway’s infamous self-portrait as a “tough son of a bitch.”

Agriculture Secretary Richie Farmer felt compelled to reassure the audience that his running mate isn’t a bully but “is actually a pretty nice guy.” Equally as damning as Farmer’s faint praise was McConnell’s hyperbole: “On any given day, David does more for the people of Kentucky than most people do in a lifetime.”

It speaks volumes that the GOP gubernatorial strategy is to bash Beshear by linking him with President Obama. Both he and McConnell exhorted the audience to send a message to the White House by electing Williams. It won’t work.

Beshear isn’t running with Obama; he’s running from him. That doesn’t deter McConnell, who misguided Trey Grayson’s doomed senatorial campaign against Rand Paul to trash Obama — and appears to be scheming similarly at Williams’ expense. McConnell has made no secret that his wettest dream is to beat the president.

“Mr. Williams cannot win this election,” Galbraith said twice as he blasted Beshear as “not a nice guy.”

But the bottom line is that most voters view Beshear as nicer than Williams, and Galbraith as a perennial also-ran.

The governor finessed his opponents’ invective by staying above the Fancy Farm fray as he dedicated the entirety of his speech to American soldiers in the Middle East, whom he had just visited. It was a surreal spectacle as he leveraged patriotic applause from his hecklers. And though connoisseurs of campaign carnage felt cheated, mostly favorable reviews ensued.

WDRB General Manager and “Point of View” man Bill Lamb opined, “Gov. Beshear’s decision to tone down the rhetoric was a smart one … it enhanced his image as the kind of statesman with the temperament to lead.” Viewers hailed him as an exemplary class act. Dyche wrote that Williams’ “best hope is the rare, risky strategy of running a positive campaign on the issues.”

He doesn’t have a choice. He can’t afford to reinforce his reputation as a bully — even though the conventional strategic wisdom for distant trailers is to go negative.

Williams can blame the “liberal” newspapers for his unfavorable ratings, but they have fairly portrayed him. And editorialists haven’t been uniformly hostile. In January 2007, the C-J defended him as “completely in the right” for the $619,000 modernization of state Senate GOP offices including a $17,400 plasma TV for his own.

Williams might tame his demons enough to win some future statewide race if he starts now, by waging a campaign that won’t leave the electorate as shaken and dirty as I like my martinis.