2003 Gubernatorial Contests Too Close to Call

While most political observers are already focused on the presidential primaries that are still months away, tight 2003 gubernatorial races are dominating the political landscape in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

And with only a week and a half to the Nov. 4 election, all three races, considered the biggest in this off-year election season, are too close to call.

While the three Republican candidates have — or are perceived to have — close ties to the Bush administration, observers say the races are unlikely to be referenda on President Bush or good predictors of next year’s presidential race.

“For every example that you can give for these off-year races mattering, you can give another example that they didn't matter,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics (search).

Sabato said that the gubernatorial races are unlikely to matter next year in part because all three states are safe for Bush.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Deborah Deshong conceded that Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are not "swing states," but said Democratic victories would give her party a boost. She added that while “Kentucky is a pretty Republican state,” even if Democratic candidate Ben Chandler loses by a small margin, the vote could be seen as a reaction to Bush.

“I believe in Kentucky, it would be [a referendum] because our candidate is running against the Bush economy,” she said. 

Chandler, the state's attorney general, is competing against Republican U.S. House Rep. Ernie Fletcher (search) to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton.

The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Bluegrass Poll, conducted Sept. 19-24, found 44 percent of those surveyed support Fletcher and 43 percent back Chandler.

Chandler, 43, is the grandson of one of Kentucky's most famous politicians — A. B. "Happy" Chandler, who was a U.S. senator, Major League Baseball commissioner and two-term governor.

The younger Chandler fits the mold of a moderate southern Democrat, receiving an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association (search) and defending the state from an American Civil Liberties Union (search) lawsuit that sought to remove the Ten Commandments monument from outside the state capitol.

The 50-year-old Fletcher is a physician serving his third term in Congress. A former Air Force commander, the Kentucky native serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was involved in early talks to mold a GOP Medicare prescription drug bill. He also recently fought to have the federal government buy out Kentucky tobacco farmers, but negotiations broke down when congressional Democrats insisted on giving the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over tobacco.

This race may have the most significant national implications because of Chandler's efforts to tie Fletcher to Bush. It is not an unfair characterization. Congressional Quarterly ratings for 2001 show Fletcher voted with Bush 98 percent of the time and has a 99 percent party unity score.

Chandler has used the connection to blame Fletcher for the state's sour economy and its struggles nationwide. But it may be a hard charge to make stick because Democrats have occupied the governor’s mansion for 32 years. Bush is also popular with Kentucky voters so Fletcher may not suffer from the link.

Farther south in Mississippi, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour (search) is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (search) in a contest being closely watched in Washington.

The candidates have exchanged sharp barbs and run plenty of negative campaign ads. Barbour has criticized Musgrove’s record as governor, citing the state’s weak economy, while Musgrove has targeted Barbour for being a Washington insider who is out of touch with Mississippi voters.

Though no polling has been released, most observers say the race is too close to call, and both candidates are very strong on the issues and in debate. Looking for the extra edge, Barbour has enlisted the aid of Bush, who is expected to visit Mississippi on Nov. 1 to stump for Barbour.

In neighboring Louisiana, former Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Bobby Jindal (search) faces Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search). The two are competing in a Nov. 15 runoff following an Oct. 4 general election in which Jindal and Blanco placed at the top of the 18-candidate field.

In the race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mike Foster, Jindal received 33 percent of the vote and Blanco garnered 18 percent, both far shy of the simple majority needed to avoid the runoff.

Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, has been closely linked to Foster, who hired him in 1996 as his secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. The former Rhodes scholar turned a $400 million deficit in Medicaid into three years of surpluses totaling $220 million. Jindal has tied himself to President Bush, praising the president's "bedrock Christian values” in a recent radio advertisement.

Blanco, who won her second term as lieutenant governor in 1999 with 80 percent of the vote, says she has increased tourism to the state and improved its economic development. Elected in 1989 as the first woman to serve on the Public Service Commission and later as its chairman, Blanco is considered a weak campaigner but a very likable female candidate.

Whatever the outcome of the three races, Republican Party spokeswoman Christina Iverson said it is difficult to predict whether they will have a wider impact.

State elections are often unrelated to voters’ preferences in national races, she said. “A lot of times all politics really is local.”