Kerr couldn't overcome Chandler's strengths

February 18, 2004|HERB BROCK

What a difference a little over three months have made in the political fortunes of Democrat Ben Chandler in this area.

In November, Chandler lost Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties in his unsuccessful bid for governor against then-U.S. 6th District Rep. Ernie Fletcher.

On Tuesday, the Versailles resident and grandson of the late former Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler carried Boyle, Lincoln and Mercer counties on his way to defeating Republican Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington and replacing Fletcher in Congress.

"Tuesday's victory was a vindication for Ben Chandler, no question about that," Boyle County Judge-Executive Tony Wilder, chairman of the Boyle County Democratic Party, said this morning. "He lost most of the district in the gubernatorial election but virtually swept the district, his home area, on Tuesday. It must feel sweet for Ben."


For Chandler, the only sour notes in the districtwide special election were sounded in Garrard and Jessamine counties where majorities voted for Kerr. The other 12 counties in the 6th District voted for Chandler.

In the four area counties, the margin of victory for Chandler was narrower than it was districtwide.

For the district, Chandler won 55 percent (84,549 votes) of the vote to nearly 43 percent (65,776 votes) for Kerr and almost 2 percent (2,957) for Libertarian Mark Gailey.

For the area, it was 50 percent (8,086 votes) for Chandler, slightly less than 48 percent (7,795 votes) for Kerr and less than 1 percent (374 votes) for Gailey.

A total of 16,155 of the 60,225, or 27 percent, of the registered voters in Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties cast ballots Tuesday.

In evaluating the outcome of the election, Boyle Democratic Party Chairman Wilder said, at first blush, it might be difficult to explain Chandler's turnaround from November, but he gave it a shot.

"I believe most people of both parties in November respected Ben as an independent Democrat and recognized the good job he had done as auditor and attorney general, but they saw Ernie as a person of change and they definitely wanted a change in the governor's office," said Wilder.

"The reversal from November to February was due to the fact that, while Ben may have lost in the governor's race, he hadn't lost the respect or recognition or reputation he gained during his years in state office when he entered the congressional race. And, while Alice Forgy Kerr is a delightful lady and a very hard campaigner, Ben definitely had the experience and name recognition and reputation on his side."

Boyle County Republican Party Chairman Tom McClain said this morning he was "very proud" of Kerr and called her the "hardest-working candidate" he had ever seen.

"Alice has strong conservative values and positions, and she took them on the campaign trail," he said. "She attracted a number of volunteers here in the county who worked endless hours for her."

Negative press toward Bush cited

While McClain believes the majority of voters in the county and the district share Kerr's conservative values and views, he said she had a hard time overcoming Chandler's name recognition and also was hurt by several months of negative press toward the Bush administration. During the campaign, Kerr frequently expressed strong support for Bush's domestic and foreign policies.

"The Republicans nationally have been getting beaten up during the last several weeks of constant media coverage of the Democratic primaries and all the Bush-bashing that's been going on," McClain said. "While I believe the economy and the war in Iraq are going well, the one-sided anti-Bush rhetoric and coverage has created a cloud over the president's handling of both things, and that has caused a drop in Republican popularity that goes down to the grassroots."

Wilder agreed that the happenings on the national political scene played at least a small role in the outcome of Tuesday's congressional election.

"I believe there was an element of national impact on the 6th District race," he said. "When I went door to door campaigning for Ben, I did hear disenchantment with Bush with people saying they viewed Tuesday's election at least partly as a referendum on Bush and an opportunity to send a message."

Both local party leaders agreed that voters of both parties were turned off by the negative campaign commercials and ads run by both candidates.

"I encountered a deep revulsion from voters to the negative campaigning," said Wilder. "I wish all those political consultants who say negative campaigning works would consult with the voters I talked to and cut it out."

But McClain and Wilder parted on how effective a congressman Chandler will make, as he seeks to fill out the remaining few months of Fletcher's congressional term and prepares for the November race for a full two-year term in the House.

While Wilder believes Chandler will make an "outstanding congressman" and retain his reputation as an "independent Democrat," McClain isn't so sure.

"It's going to be interesting over the next few months to see if Chandler can keep his so-called independent status or be forced to fall in line with the national Democratic Party's very liberal platform," McClain said. "If he falls in line, I believe he will fall out of favor real fast with the generally conservative voters of Boyle and the rest of the district."

Whether Chandler toes the party line or asserts independence, he will face a "strong Republican" in November, McClain said.

"I don't know who it will be, but I feel we'll offer a good person that represents the district's conservatism."

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