Democrats in Trouble as Kentucky, Mississippi Elect New Governors

 

Voters in Kentucky and Mississippi hit the polls Tuesday to elect new governors, and in both states, the Republican candidates are well positioned to wrest the governorship from Democratic hands.

The closer of the two races is in Mississippi, where Republican power broker Haley Barbour holds a slight lead over Ronnie Musgrove, the Democratic incumbent, according to recent polls.

The race has centered on the state's struggling economy, with Musgrove trying to paint Barbour as an Inside-the-Beltway lobbyist who is out of touch with the state's needs. Barbour, meanwhile, has tried to pin Mississippi's economic woes on Musgrove's stewardship of the economy.

Neither candidate has offered voters a solid plan to improve the state's economy, political analysts told Stateline.org.

"Grand visions? No. There's an absence of vision in this thing. It's a question of what you can say about the performance of your opponent," said Steve Rozman, a political science professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.

Barbour led Musgrove 50 percent to 45 percent, according to a poll conducted Oct. 21-23 by The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson) and The Associated Press. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

With the candidates so close, Rozman said the race could turn on who is better able to get their people to the polls.

"I think that Barbara Blackman (African-American candidate for Lt. Gov.) is going to contribute to a large black turnout, which will help Musgrove. So it depends on some of the rural white vote going for Musgrove, because the suburban white vote is solidly Republican and supportive of Barbour," Rozman said.

The Kentucky governor's race has been dominated by scandal, though neither of the two major party candidates -- Republican U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher and Democratic Attorney General Ben Chandler -- has been implicated in any wrongdoing. Rather, the scandal involves outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, who admitted last year to an extra-marital affair.

"The defining feature was scandal and the defining moment was when Patton admitted the affair. Democrats are being tainted by that," said Al Cross, a political columnist at The Courier-Journal (Louisville).

Fletcher took advantage of the scandal to cast himself as an agent of change, claiming that he would clean up the state capital after 32 years of Democratic control.

"No matter what question you ask Fletcher or any Republican running statewide they will try to inject the phrase 'real change' into their answer. The 'mess in Frankfurt' is Fletcher's mantra and his watchword is 'change,'" Cross said.

Fletcher led Chandler 48 percent to 39 percent, according to a poll conducted Oct. 21-23 by The Courier-Journal (Louisville). The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said he's surprised the spread isn't larger.

"Part of me wonders why Chandler is even close, when I consider the scandals we've had in Frankfurt, the fact that Fletcher's people have an awful lot of money, that there's a Republican president who's popular in the state. I think that says something about the staying power of the state Democratic Party, that they're still in it, that they can still win," Gross said.

On Nov. 15 a third Southern state, Louisiana, also will elect a new governor. The race there is tight, with Republican Bobby Jindal holding a slim lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Republican Mike Foster is the outgoing governor.

Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said the Republican advantage in these races is indicative of the long-term trend in Southern politics, which has moved from Democratic domination to Republican.

"The South is very competitive. Here you are talking about three states that were solidly Democratic and now they're on the verge of having Republican governors. It just solidifies the changes that have been going on," Beyle said.

But lest Republicans get too excited, Beyle said Democrats still have a fighting chance in these races.

"They better wait until they count the votes," Beyle said.

Beyond the governors' contests, three states Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia elect new state legislators Tuesday. Louisiana elects new state legislators Nov. 15. The total number of legislative seats up for grabs in these states is 578, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

 
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