FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is predicting he will coast to re-election over two rivals Tuesday, confident of becoming the second Democrat to win a U.S. gubernatorial race this year despite an ailing economy statewide and nationwide that's already proving worrisome to President Barack Obama's 2012 effort.
In a conservative state where voters routinely choose Republicans in national races, Democrats have lost only two governor's races since 1950. But Beshear's chief rival, Republican challenger and longtime state Senate President David Williams, is promising to buck a string of poll projections favoring Beshear and score an upset.
Williams, the longtime state Senate president, and independent Gatewood Galbraith, an attorney making his fifth run for governor, campaigned on claims that Beshear wasn't doing enough to create jobs in a state where one in 10 workers is unemployed and where budget woes have forced severe cuts to government services.
Pre-election polls showed Beshear with a double-digit lead over Williams, so much so that Beshear has predicted he could win in a landslide. The incumbent has boasted about those numbers before the hundreds of supporters who have routinely flocked to his campaign stops in towns all across Kentucky.
"I think the other side has been holding their rallies in phone booths," he joked, drawing guffaws from a standing-room only crowd in Bowling Green recently.
Now, after months of political speeches, voters in Kentucky are having their say with 12 hours of balloting starting at 6 a.m. local time. Election observers said the race could see such light turnout in a non-presidential election year that as many as 75 percent of the state's registered voters might stay away from the polls.
Regardless of the turnout, the race is seen as another important piece in gauging the political climate as Obama's prepares for his re-election bid.
The GOP won in Louisiana last month when incumbent Gov. Bobby Jindal easily secured a second term. Republicans are favored to take another victory Tuesday in Mississippi, where Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the front-runner in a race to succeed two-term Gov. Haley Barbour. Bryant faces Democrat Johnny DuPree, a mayor who is the first black candidate in modern times to win a major-party nod for Mississippi governor.
In Kentucky, if the polls bear out, Beshear would be poised to seize the second Democratic gubernatorial victory this year after West Virginia's special election. Earl Ray Tomblin won Oct. 4 in West Virginia after a race in which Republican challenger Bill Maloney tried to paint as a mandate on Obama's presidency.
Like Maloney in West Virginia, Williams has tried to make Obama a central figure in this campaign.
Beshear has endorsed Obama for re-election while Williams blames the Democratic president for job-killing economic policies and for environmental policies that have harmed Kentucky's coal industry, a considerable sector that employs about 18,000 people. At campaign stops, Williams says Beshear has failed to set an agenda that puts people back to work, noting Kentucky has lost some 90,000 jobs since Beshear took office in 2007.
"He not only has a failed governorship over the past four years, he does not have an agenda for the next four years," Williams told about 50 supporters Saturday in the community of Newport. "We cannot afford four more years of a do-nothing governor who doesn't understand that we have to change our tax code, change our burden of debt, go right to work, and make the changes that the other states are making to create well-paying jobs."
Beshear acknowledges the gloomy economy, but insists that Kentucky is emerging from lean times much stronger than most other states.
Republican operative Larry Forgy, a Kentucky attorney, said the governor's race shouldn't be viewed as a harbinger for Obama.
"Steve Beshear will be up in the treetops screeching like a buzzard, but there's nothing unusual about a Democrat being elected governor in Kentucky," Forgy said, noting the state's historical record of siding with Democrats for the post.
Additionally, Beshear has raised a war chest of more than $10 million, gaining a huge campaign-financing advantage from the get-go. Williams had banked about $2 million, and Galbraith less than $200,000, according to the last donor reports filed with election authorities. Outside political groups, including the Republican Governor's Association, helped Williams edge toward financial parity with Beshear by spending nearly $4 million on TV ads for the GOP.