GOP Hopes for Further Gains in Southern Governor's Races

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:30pm EDT

( - If Republicans gain a seat in three governor's races this November, they will add to a spate of GOP upsets in the South.

Last year, Republicans unseated Democratic governors in Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia just two years after President Bush won all three states handily in the 2000 election.

This year, the GOP is hoping to defeat Democrats in Kentucky and Mississippi while holding onto their seat in Louisiana.

GOP net gains will render some help to President Bush in the 2004 presidential race or, conversely, make the Democratic Party look vigorous in the South, some analysts believe.

"Should Republicans win all three, it's obviously a boost in morale heading into the presidential year," remarked Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "Overall, if the GOP picks up even one net governorship from an off-year, that plus California will suggest it has been a good building year for the Republicans."

"It matters just because of...the impression it makes," said John Samples, a Cato Institute analyst. "If [Democrats] win the governorship, they might be able to create the impression...that the Republicans were on the run [and] didn't have the momentum going in.

"But it looks like that's not going to happen," Samples concluded.

In the days and weeks before the respective elections, however, none of the three races are a "slam dunk" for either major political party, judging from recent polling and analysis.

In Kentucky, which hasn't had a Republican governor since 1968, Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher leads Democratic Attorney General Ben Chandler by just 1 point, according to a Louisville Courier-Journal "Bluegrass Poll" of likely voters conducted Sep. 19-24.

Chandler has tried to paint Fletcher as a champion of corporate interests (pharmaceutical companies in particular) while trying to distance himself from "scandals in Frankfort."

Term-limited incumbent Paul Patton (D) was sued for sexual harassment in September of 2002 by Tina Conner, the owner of a nursing home in western Kentucky. Conner alleged that Patton used his official powers to exact revenge on Conner after she broke off a two-year affair with the governor. Patton has since acknowledged an "inappropriate personal relationship" but denied any retaliation.

Also, Patton's chief of staff was indicted for violating campaign finance laws in 1995.

Despite Fletcher's mere 1-point lead, Sabato cites the Democratic scandals in predicting that the governor's race "is almost certainly going Republican."

In Mississippi, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour is hoping to unseat incumbent Ronnie Musgrove, who has long positioned himself as a conservative Democrat.

Musgrove received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and broke with his party in supporting Bush judicial nominee Charles W. Pickering Sr.

Nonetheless, it was Barbour who enjoyed a 5-point lead (54-45 percent) in a recent Associated Press/Clarion-Ledger poll (one of the only publicly released polls in that race). "Good news for Barbour," according to the Biloxi Sun Herald, but still "close enough to go either way" since the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The Herald has even gone so far as say it's "very much a possibility" that the Mississippi governor's race could again, for the second consecutive election, be thrown to the state House of Representatives. In the last election, a third-party candidate denied a majority vote to any candidate, triggering a constitutionally required resolution by the House.

Louisiana is even less clear-cut. "Very murky" is how political analyst Charlie Cook describes the outcome of Louisiana's Nov. 15 governor's race.

"I'll avoid a prediction," agrees Sabato.

Sixty-year-old Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a pro-life Democrat, faces 32-year-old Bobby Jindal, a former Bush administration assistant secretary of Health and Human Services and head of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals (which oversees Medicaid). Neither Blanco nor Jindal garnered a majority in Louisiana's Oct. 4 election, forcing a Nov. 15 run-off.

Blanco has criticized Jindal's career as "18-month political appointments...that he was not essentially qualified for.

"The ship of state does not come with training wheels," said Blanco, who's defended herself against accusations of negative campaigning by saying she hasn't run negative television ads.

A Southern Media and Opinion Research poll of likely voters conducted Oct. 17-20 found Jindal with a 2-point lead.

But Blanco may yet be helped by ads run by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), believes a Louisiana political scientist.

"In a race this tight, if 1 to 2 percent of the undecideds vote on the basis of John Breaux's recommendation, that could be the election," political science professor Pearson Cross of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

The GOP now boasts 27 governorships, thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California's recall election, compared to the Democrats' 23.

See Earlier Stories:
Dem Opposition to Pickering Could Help GOP in Mississippi
(Oct. 29, 2003)
Both Parties Claim Big Victories in Gubernatorial Races (Nov. 6, 2002)

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