Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Republican Meltdown in Kentucky

I'm sure you've heard that the Louisiana and Kentucky gubernatorial races this year are bellwethers for 2008. Avert your eyes from the dem crackup in bayou country and take a gander at the GOP disaster being overseen by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell right here in his home state.

Short version: Boy governor goes from national GOP hero to galactic goat in three short years, own Lt. Gov. stabs him in the back, political godfather abandons him, rejected congresswoman and his own former finance chair challenge him for nomination, state GOP at each other's throats, whole mess threatens to bring down Machine That Mitch Built.

Ready for the dirty details?

Mitch's former pet, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the man he hand-picked in 2003 to end 32 years of Democratic ownership of the Capitol, has re-defined political incompetence. He ran afoul of state civil service laws (we call it the "merit system" down here, for reasons passing understanding) almost immediately by forcing merit employees out to make room for cronies.

As in most states and the federal government, merit law in Kentucky allows governors and county executives to replace "non-merit" or political appointees any time they choose, for any reason. But "merit" staff - professional employees covered by civil service protection - cannot be fired except for cause. The details can get convoluted, but the basic principle is pretty simple.

Not simple enough for Ernie, though. He left several of his Democratic predecessor's political appointees in place, and went fishing in the merit pool for positions for his campaign contributors and their idiot nephews.

Merit employees, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, did not take this kindly. One who lost his job went to the attorney general, Democrat Greg Stumbo, who investigated and filed charges against ol' Ern and several of his staff.

Now, the case was a long way from a slam dunk. Lots of questions about exactly who lost their jobs and under what circumstances. It was so shaky, in fact, that if Ernie had just stood in front of the cameras and said some of his overenthusiastic staffers had inadvertently overlooked the specifics of the somewhat arcane merit laws and regulations and made mistakes, that the mistakes had been corrected and the staffers disciplined, the whole thing would have been a two-day wonder and forgotten.

But Ernie's infallibly wrong political sense told him otherwise. He stonewalled, denied, cried political persecution, called Stumbo names, blamed Democrats in state government and then, when it seemed there was only one thing left to do to seal his political coffin, he did precisely what Democrats prayed - but never believed - he was stupid enough to do:

He pardoned the miscreant staffers.

Now, pardoning staffers, especially those who know things that might interest a grand jury, is a long gubernatorial tradition, last used by Ernie's predecessor Paul Patton.

But Ernie not only forgot the campaign promise he made to NOT pardon staffers, he went so far as to pardon people who had not even been indicted yet - issuing blanket pardons that gave them immunity for any crime they may or may not have committed - plus any crimes they may commit in the future.
(For a few weeks that summer of 2005, you could crack up anyone in Frankfort just by saying, "Pardon me!")

He did not pardon himself, and promised rather loudly he would not do so, which he may have regretted in May 2006, when Stumbo's grand jury indicted Fletcher on misdemeanor violations of the merit law.

Giddy Democrats had to be tied in their chairs for fear their dances of glee would shatter the windows.

The only thing holding Ernie back from the political abyss was the powerful hand of his political mentor and sponsor, Mitch McConnell. With Mitch behind him, Ernie could bluff it out.

Then Mitch let go of Ernie's collar and kicked him over the cliff.
For six months, Mitch refused to comment on Ernie's troubles, or make any statement at all that could be construed as support.

Thus it was no surprise in January when Anne Northup filed as a Republican candidate for governor. Annie was the five-term Congressperson in Louisville who also benefitted from Mitch's patronage. When she lost to neophtye Democratic challenger John Yarmuth in November, there was a lot of speculation she might run against Fletcher in the May primary.

But she would not - could not - do it without Mitch's approval. If she filed for governor, that meant Mitch had cut Ernie loose. If she didn't, then maybe Ernie still had a chance to crawl, groveling, back in Mitch's good graces.

She filed, and Ernie's political career died with her signature.

A smart politican would have bowed to the inevitable, taken a bullet for the team and withdrawn from the race.

But if Ernie were a smart politician, he wouldn't have made all the bone-headed decisions that got him into this mess in the first place.

Oh, and did I mention that the other Republican challenging Ernie for the nomination is Ernie's very own 2003 campaign finance director?

But here's the best part: Ernie's 2003 running mate, Lieutenant Governor Steve Pence, has just endorsed Anne Northup.

You heard that right: The sitting Lt. Governor has stabbed his own Governor in the back.

Not that it was unexpected. In 2005, after Ernie pardoned his staffers, Pence - the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky - announced he could no longer support Fletcher and would not be his running mate in 2007.

He stayed on as Lieutenant Governor, though, doing - well, we're not sure exactly what he does, other than cashing his paycheck. And sniping at his former running mate. In the last week, Pence has not only endorsed Annie, he has started publicly condemning Ernie on the merit mess.

Technically, Mitch has not endorsed Annie. He doesn't have to. Everybody knows he's supporting her; that's why Mitch's allies all over the state have rushed to endorse her. Kentucky's junior senator, Jim Bunning, has endorsed Annie in a move widely seen as a surrogate for McConnell's support.

It's less than 3 months to the May 22 primary. Latest polls show Annie and Ernie neck-and-neck. Annie says Ernie can't win the general election, and she's right. She's also subjecting Ernie to a death by 1,000 cuts, coming out almost daily with additions to the list of Ernie's broken promises and failed initiatives.
Whether she can win in November depends on which of the mostly lame Democratic contenders wins the primary.

If Ernie wins the primary, or Annie wins the primary and loses the general, Mitch enters his 2008 re-election race greatly weakened. Even if Annie wins both, Mitch will be wounded by the party split caused by the primary.

It's never a good idea to underestimate Mitch McConnell. He's brilliant, powerful, unscrupulous, ruthless, and sitting on a huge hoard of campaign cash.
But this time, he just may have acted sharply enough to cut his own throat.

For more details on Mitch's Mess, and insightful commentary, check out the Lexington Herald-Leader's political blog at and Mark Nickolas' indispensable Bluegrass Report at