Gubernatorial Candidates Face Off in Southern States

 

With hotly contested races for governor in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, the South is home to the year's three biggest political battles.

  • In Kentucky, at least eight candidates, including a U.S. Representative, two state lawmakers, the attorney general and a multimillionaire first-time candidate, hope to succeed term-limited Gov. Paul Patton (D), who leaves office amid an ethics scandal. 
  • In Louisiana, at least twelve candidates, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, a former Bush administration official and an ex-governor, are vying to replace term-limited Gov. Mike Foster (R).
  • And in Mississippi, incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) is squaring-off against Haley Barbour, a Washington, D.C., power broker, who is expected to easily defeat his Republican primary opponent.

While these races are far from the finish line, some analysts are already predicting Republicans could be in for a good year. They say personal and political questions dogging current Democratic administrations in Kentucky and Mississippi give the GOP the early edge in those states. They add that Republican candidates in all three states could gain from a strong push by President Bush and his political strategist Karl Rove, neither of whom has been shy about spending political capital on local elections.

Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, said Bush and his team are certain to get involved in these races. Sabato said that of the three, Louisiana is particularly important for Bush's reelection in 2004, since he can be expected to carry Kentucky and Mississippi.

"They've got to have Louisiana. It's a must-win state for them and Mike Foster helped them a lot. They want a reliable Republican governor," Sabato said.

Insuring that Louisianans elect a Republican won't be easy. The term-limited Foster remains popular, but he has no clear successor.

"The Republicans don't have a candidate that stands out, particularly one that reaches out and connects with the hard right the way that Mike Foster did, the way that David Duke did, someone who can really reach the rural conservative male voter," said John Maginnis, editor of LaPolitics.com, a web site devoted to Louisiana politics.

Foster is backing Bobby Jindal, a 31-year-old Rhodes Scholar and former president of the University of Louisiana System and high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Despite an impressive resume, some observers say Jindal may not be a great fit for Louisiana electoral politics.

"You've got to listen to this guy, he's so articulate," said Sabato. "But 1) he doesn't sound like a Louisianan and 2) he is of Indian decent and I'm going to be very impressed if Louisiana is progressive enough to elect somebody that doesn't look like white bread."

In announcing his candidacy, Jindal said he thinks Louisiana voters will not judge him on the basis of his ethnic heritage.

Maginnis said Louisiana Democrats have a stronger field of candidates to choose from than the Republicans: "There are really two tiers of candidates. The Democrats are on top and the Republicans are on the bottom."

Leading Democrats include Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who has led some early polls, and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, who commands strong support among rank-and-file Democrats.

Maginnis said Blanco's strengths include a long career in public service in Louisiana, including a previous stint as Public Service Commissioner, favorable appeal to women and a high level of popularity in Lafayette and surrounding parishes, a key geographic base.

Louisiana's unusual primary system means the race for governor could be decided as early as Oct. 4. On that day, all candidates will run against each other in what is called an "open primary." If anyone receives a majority of the votes, then he or she will be Louisiana's next governor. If not, then the top two finishers, regardless of party, will compete in a runoff Nov. 15.

Although not as important in the presidential calculus, Mississippi's race for governor could be the year's most interesting contest.

"This race is setting up to be the Super Bowl of gubernatorial races ... You've got a sitting Democratic governor with a good solid country base and a tremendous work ethic who has had some missteps that make him vulnerable staring right into the face of one of the greatest campaign strategists this country has seen in the last twenty or thirty years. . . ," said Marty Wiseman, professor of political science at Mississippi State University.

Musgrove defeated Republican Mike Parker four years ago in a race decided by the state House of Representatives after Musgrove fell just short of the majority needed to win outright. He is coming off a first-term in which he had to contend with severe budget problems. Nonetheless, Musgrove was able to win passage of a $338 million teacher pay raise plan that will bring their wages to the Southeastern average.

But Musgrove may have alienated trial lawyers, a key part of his base, last year by advocating a limit on pain and suffering awards in malpractice lawsuits. This could loom large in the campaign, because Musgrove will need all the financial support he can get if he is to fend off Barbour, who vows to raise $10 million for his campaign. Total spending for all of Mississippi's gubernatorial candidates four years ago was just short of $9 million.

As former head of the Republican National Committee, Barbour should be able to raise as much money as he needs. But Barbour's Washington, D.C., clout could also work against him, observers say.

"That's going to have to be Musgrove's point of attack you've got this big Washington operator who's going to come back to Mississippi after all these years and try to take over the governor's seat," said Wiseman.

Mississippi's primary is scheduled for Aug. 5. The general election is Nov. 4.

In Kentucky, an investigation into term-limited Patton's conduct while in office means no one is trying to ride his coattails. Instead, Republicans are talking about restoring dignity to the office, while Democrats are distancing themselves from their embattled leader.

In the case of Democratic frontrunner Ben Chandler, Kentucky's attorney general, that's been relatively easy.

"One advantage Chandler has is that he has not been closely aligned with the current governor. So none of those scandals have stuck on him. I think he's done a very good job of being a Democrat and minimizing the damage of being a Democrat," said Donald Gross, political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher was thought to be the strongest candidate, but residency problems with his running mate may have set him back. [In Kentucky, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run on a joint ticket.] After a court disqualified Fletcher's first running mate, Hunter Bates, Fletcher picked another.

"I would have projected Ernie Fletcher as the leader had he not had this terrible embarrassment with his lieutenant governor candidate. Has it hurt him? Of course it's hurt him. Will it last all the way into November? It could. It might. I tend to think it will be more of a factor in the primary than in the general election. He picked a very solid replacement," Sabato said.

Kentucky's primary is scheduled for May 20. Winners will face each other in the Nov. 4 general election.

 
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