Underdog in Kentucky Governor's GOP Primary Race Tries Humor to Win Over Voters

An underdog in the governor's race is trying something different in his attempt to win the Republican nomination.


Billy Harper, a businessman and race car driver from Paducah, plans to begin airing an amusing political ad on Monday, spending more than $1 million over the next month to bring a lighthearted touch to the serious world of Kentucky politics.

It includes a Colonel Sanders impersonator, an Elvis look-alike, even a whinnying horse, all saying "No." Then Harper appears, signing a pledge not to raise taxes. A narrator ends the ad saying: "No new taxes for Kentucky."

"We've got to laugh a little, enjoy things," Harper said Thursday.

Harper is challenging Gov. Ernie Fletcher in a three-way race in the May 22 GOP primary. Former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville is also running.

In the last governor's race, Harper served as Fletcher's finance chairman, collecting donations that helped to elect Kentucky's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Harper decided to run for the office himself after Fletcher and several members of his administration were indicted on charges that they violated state hiring laws by appointing political supporters to protected state jobs.

Fletcher issued pardons to everyone in his administration who was charged with crimes. The indictment against him was dismissed in a negotiated agreement with prosecutors.

Both Harper and Northup claim that Fletcher has been too politically weakened to win in the November general election -- one of only three governor's races to be held this year.

Harper said Thursday he wants the latest political ad to convey to voters that he is adamantly opposed to higher taxes and has signed a pledge not to impose any additional taxes.

University of Louisville political scientist Phil Laemmle said most candidates try to steer clear of humor for one basic reason.

"Humor is not a universal currency. What you or I might think is funny, others may not think is funny at all. It's risky in some ways," Laemmle said.

Laemmle said a lighter touch worked for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, when he unseated the entrenched Democrat Walter Huddleston in 1984. McConnell used a series of television campaign spots featuring hounds searching for Huddleston, questioning the incumbent's attendance record in the Senate.

"That was actually a very effective ad," Laemmle said. "It was funny. It was clever. For an approach like that to work, everything has to be just right."

That's why most political ads tend to highlight a candidate's background or hammer on issues.

"They may not be very interesting," Laemmle said, "but they're interpretable to everybody."