FRANKFORT — It’s still July, but the race for governor has begun in earnest, with the incumbent and his main challenge on paid TV so much, and targeting the same audiences, that their ads occasionally run back to back.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican state Senate President David Williams have had what amounted to their first debate, before the Kentucky Farm Bureau board, and Saturday they will headline the political speaking at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County.
Williams needs as many face-offs with Beshear as he can get.
He has trouble at both ends of his base: Republican moderates don’t like his views or, perhaps more so, his personality; and some ardent conservatives who have coalesced around the tea party label see him as a part of a ruling, pro-tax elite.
He is far behind in polls, getting no boost from his underwhelming primary victory.
He is far behind in money, and without a big infusion of personal funds that he may not have, he will surely stay behind. He is running against a powerful incumbent who can easily raise money from those who stand to gain or lose at the hands of the state. Williams has power of his own, as the legislature’s main gatekeeper, but it is no match for the power — and the perceived and feared power — of an executive who appears to be on track for another term.
That being said, the race is far from over, Williams can’t be written off, and Beshear seems to know that.
The lengths to which Beshear is going to avoid face-offs with Williams, stiffing him and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on July 12 but giving an added-starter speech to the group that night, indicate a healthy fear of the challenger’s ability to frame the issues, show expertise and paint damaging comparisons. At Fancy Farm, the command performance for statewide candidates, the nominees and independent Gatewood Galbraith will get a dose of media attention that could resonate for days.
Most attention right now is on the national debt debate, and the incredible intransigence of the tea party caucus in the House threatens permanent, national damage to the Republican brand. But the debate has hurt President Obama’s poll numbers, too, and in places where he is firmly unpopular, such as Kentucky, he could shoulder most of the blame for a debacle. (That wouldn’t be fair, because Republicans created the crisis, but Harry Truman taught us where the buck stops.)
From the start, Williams’ main chance, perhaps his only chance, has been to use Obama to capitalize on voters’ unhappiness with the economy and government in general. At the Farm Bureau forum, Williams repeatedly injected Obama or the federal government into discussion of state issues, and as the race develops that strategy is likely to be aimed more personally at Beshear.
The governor has said that he will support the president for re-election, and like other Democratic governors has not joined lawsuits challenging Obama’s health care reforms. He says he is not for changing the state’s tax system or its public pensions, Kentucky’s best example of an entitlement that needs reform. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded partly because Beshear has deferred debt payments that will raise costs in the long run.
Can Williams use that three-legged stool to “morph” Beshear into Obama, in the same way that Republicans turned Joe Prather into Bill Clinton in the famous TV commercial in the 1994 special election for Congress? It would be a stretch. Unlike Prather, Beshear has high name recognition and favorability. He said after the Farm Bureau forum that he didn’t think voters would see the election as a chance to make “some national statement,” and “issues in a governor’s race are about Kentucky.”
Usually, yes. But Democrats probably won the close 1995 governor’s race by federalizing it, painting GOP nominee and 1991 candidate Larry Forgy as a henchman of Republicans who would dismantle New Deal programs that had helped Kentucky. Ads associating Beshear, running mate Jerry Abramson and Attorney General Jack Conway with Obama could have some impact.
But someone must pay for those ads, and before Williams can use such issues to push voters his way, he must get them to like him, or at least tolerate him to the point where they will listen to his case.
Those concerns seem to drive Williams’ current TV strategy.
Despite his apparent shortage of money, he is running an ad called “Dad,” in which he says he has spent his life “trying to live up to the standards” set by his late father, longtime Cumberland County Clerk Lewis Williams. Those were high standards, and Lewis Williams’ only son looks into the camera and tells voters, “Some days I have met those goals and others I have not.”
Thus David Williams offers himself to voters as a human being, not the caricature he and his critics have created in his 11-plus years as Kentucky’s most powerful legislator.
It’s a good ad, but many good ads have been run by losing candidates.
Williams has help, however.
Until the “Dad” ad began July 19, Williams’ post-primary presence on TV was from the Republican Governors Association: ads touting him as a fighter of taxes, government spending and “Obama’s job-killing policies.”
The first RGA ad wasn’t very good, but Beshear went back on the air July 18, a week after it began. Williams, probably fearing that fresh polling would show no movement in his direction, had to get on the air — perhaps not as much to persuade voters as to persuade potential contributors that he still has a chance.
Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.