Much of the speculation over the Republican nomination for governor in Kentucky has centered on the threat Anne Northup poses to Gov. Ernie Fletcher's reelection. But Northup's candidacy is not a threat to the Fletcher administration; it's an opportunity.
Ryan Alessi's article today, titled, "Fletcher Moves to Stop Mutiny," has a slightly negative slant on Fletcher, portraying the Fletcher campaign in a defensive posture. Some national political wags are even saying the race is Northup's to lose.
This is a mistaken assessment. Here's why:
First, Northup is overrated. Although she's a competent campaigner, smart and determined, and she is from Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state, she apparently has little campaign apparatus outside the county. Larry Forgy is right: more people know Anne Northup "in Floyd County, Indiana than in Floyd County, Kentucky." In addition, some analysts are forgetting she lost there.
Her chances to build an organization were dealt a blow recently when Republican legislators began lining up for Fletcher in numbers that must have surprised even Fletcher supporters. This certainly must have surprised Northup's campaign, which was probably expecting just the opposite.
It was Northup's Bay of Pigs.
Most of these commitments came from the Senate, but there would have been more from the House had not Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown), Northup's running mate, been Minority Floor Leader there. Hoover's leadership position in the House will help the campaign's success outside Louisville, but most of that help will be in the fact that some support for Fletcher will be neutralized rather than that Hoover will get the necessary support from members. But the election of Stan Lee (R-Lexington) to minority whip has to be seen not only as an indication of dissatisfaction with Hoover's get-along-with-the-Democrats approach that has characterized his tenure, but proof that there is a willingness among members to openly buck his leadership. This can't bode well for Northup.
Second, Fletcher is underrated. He is the sitting governor after all. The power of his position was on display in the recent commitments the governor received from lawmakers and county judge-executives. In addition, Fletcher's chief activity over the last few months has been announcing projects county to county. Local officials don't forget such things.
So if it is true that Fletcher's chances are better against Northup than the analyst's think, what is it that makes Northup's candidacy good for the governor's prospects?
First, attention. One of the problems Fletcher has had during his administration is the poor communication of his accomplishments. The Fletcher administration would probably say that this is due to an anti-Fletcher media, and this is probably at least partly true. The governor has not exactly gotten good breaks while in office either. But the Fletcher administration seems to keep its spokesmen on a short leash, and this hasn't helped.
The Fletcher administration needs a Tony Snow--bad.
The fact that Fletcher now is in a position of having to get out and campaign early is placing some much needed pressure on getting its message out. The Governor's chief of staff, Stan Cave is the best spokesperson the administration has, but his adminstrative duties obviously place limits on what he has been able to do. The Northup candidacy has forced the administration into a position in which it must deploy Cave. Cave is not known to suffer fools glady, particularly those he feels inhabit the media. But Cave is everything Fletcher is not. Fletcher is not a fighter (despite his military background). Cave is. The sooner he is out with Larry Forgy battling for the administration, the better off it will be.
The only time Fletcher has made the news over the past year is in regard to the hiring investigation. Northup's challenge to Fletcher will force the administration into changing that sooner than it otherwise would have.
The second reason the Northup candidacy helps is that it could provide the Fletcher administration with a victory it needs to shore up the public image of a less than competent administration that has developed over the past couple of years.
Fletcher does not wield power very well. He doesn't understand the mystique of the governor's office. He comes out of his hospital room after an illness last year in his hospital pajamas. No governor who understands the importance of a public persona would address the cameras in his pajamas. No one should have seen Fletcher during that time.
While he is seen when he shouldn't be, he often isn't seen when he should be.
When the Comair flight crashed at Bluegrass field last summer, the governor should have been on the spot giving a speech the next day putting the tragedy in perspective, much as Reagan did after the first shuttle crash--even if he had to fly back from Europe to do it. Instead, little was seen of him.
These tendencies have caused a crisis of confidence among many people in Fletcher's leadership. But this perception could be changed if he is able to beat a viable opponent in the primary. Victories inspire confidence, and victories have been few and far between during Fletcher' tenure. The failure to get Larry Forgy on the Republican state executive committee last year, for example, hurt--less because Forgy didn't make it than because it contributed to the perception that Fletcher is weak. It probably shouldn't have been attempted in the first place unless it was a sure thing.
A victory over Northup, however, would provide Fletcher not only with a victory over Northup, but a victory over Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is said to run the state party, and is perceived to be invincible. McConnell is clearly behind Northup, even though he claims to be neutral in the primary. Fletcher has been manhandled by McConnell's minions (such as Jack Richardson, head of the Jefferson County Republican Party). A Fletcher victory against Northup would change all that.
If Fletcher is successful against Northup, he has an important victory in his pocket as he enters the general election--and he will have slain a much larger dragon than any he will face in the general election. If he can beat McConnell, he will have achieved something no Democrat has been able to accomplish so far.
Most importantly, he will have changed public perception, which has always been his chief problem.