Correction to This Article
This article in some Nov. 4 editions misidentified Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), formerly a member of the House, as Jim Thune.

Democrats Appear to Resurge in Kentucky

Democrat Steve Beshear, campaigning at a Cadiz, Ky., restaurant, appears headed to victory over Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher on Tuesday.
Democrat Steve Beshear, campaigning at a Cadiz, Ky., restaurant, appears headed to victory over Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher on Tuesday. (By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

CADIZ, Ky. -- Republicans are making Steve Beshear's life look easy.

Beshear, a Democrat, is expected to sail past the GOP incumbent into the Kentucky governor's mansion Tuesday, and Republicans in the Bluegrass State are already concerned about next year, when the White House is in play and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faces reelection.

No wonder Beshear bounded into the Cadiz Restaurant on Main Street last week, all smiles and confidence, his tie knotted tightly and his penny loafers gleaming. A new statewide poll showed him with a 23 percentage-point lead over Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), an ordained minister whose ethical challenges have merged in voters' minds with frustration over Republican leadership in Washington.

Beshear joked to an equally upbeat crowd that Fletcher is now called "the great unifier": unifying Democrats, Republicans and independents who want to throw him out.

Four years ago, when Fletcher became the state's first GOP governor in three decades, the mood in Kentucky's political parties was reversed. Kentucky appeared reliably Republican and the Democrats were scrambling to field winners. But recent results indicate fresh doubts.

Last year, progressive political newcomer John Yarmuth (D) took the northern Kentucky seat of five-term Rep. Anne M. Northup (R). In 2004, Daniel Mongiardo, an unknown state senator now running for lieutenant governor with Beshear, came surprisingly close to beating Sen. Jim Bunning (R), 76.

Most analysts think it unlikely that McConnell could lose. But Kentucky Democrats no longer think it out of the question. Beshear points to McConnell's ties to Bush, his firm support of the Iraq war and his leading role in an unpopular Congress.

"People in Kentucky are just as fed up with what's going on nationally as they are with what has gone on in the state," Beshear, 63, said. "President Bush has the lowest approval ratings he has ever had in the state, about 35 percent. In Kentucky, that's something."

Beshear added, "We've also got to find a good candidate."

A recent Lexington Herald-Leader poll suggested that a pair of Democrats, Rep. Ben Chandler and state Auditor Crit Luallen, are within five percentage points of McConnell in prospective matchups. But Chandler may wait until 2010 to seek Bunning's seat and Luallen has never run against an opponent as well-known and well-funded as McConnell, who has raised $9.1 million toward his reelection.

Political analyst Joe Gershtenson thinks McConnell is too politically skilled to be overtaken in 12 months, barring a dramatic and unsavory revelation. He sees few parallels with Republican John Thune's narrow defeat of then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004.

"McConnell has certainly throughout his career proven to be not only a phenomenal fundraiser but a very astute politician," said Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Kentucky History and Politics. "He has proven himself very capable of triumphing repeatedly in different settings."

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