GOP Eyes Possible Gains in '07 Races

Location, location, location could make all the difference in the three governors' seats in play this year.

The gubernatorial races - in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi - are in the South, the only region where Republicans made gains in state offices as Democrats in 2006 swept into a majority of governors' mansions and more statehouses than at any time since 1994.

Kentucky voters will decide May 22 whether to give their vulnerable incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) a chance for a second term, but he faces two other Republicans in the party's primary, including his former campaign manager. Less than two weeks before the primary, none of the six candidates in the crowded Democratic field has emerged as a clear front-runner.

In the first election since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast , Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is in a strong position to return. But wilting criticism of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's (D) handling of devastation in New Orleans led her to bow out of the race.

The 2007 election also marks the first time that term limits hit the Louisiana Legislature, threatening more Democrats than Republicans and putting the GOP in striking distance of taking control of the one of the statehouse chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. In the Louisiana House, for example, 29 of 63 Democrats will get booted out because of term limits compared to only 16 of 41 current Republican House members. All legislative seats in Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia also are on the ballot this year but are not affected by term limits.

Election Day this year is Nov. 6, except in Louisiana, where voters will go to the polls Nov. 17. Democrats will try to build on 2006 victories that boosted their hold on governorships to 28 and gave the party control of 23 state legislatures.

Running neck-and-neck in Kentucky

The most closely contested gubernatorial race is in Kentucky , where Fletcher, the incumbent, is facing a tough fight from both Democrats and fellow Republicans. "It's anybody's best guess who will win," said Larry Jaggers, secretary treasurer of the Kentucky AFL-CIO. The largest labor organization in Kentucky will hold off endorsing any candidate until after the May 22 primary.

Six Democrats and two Republicans are vying to deny a second term to Fletcher, the former U.S. congressman who is the first Republican governor in Kentucky in more than 30 years. But Fletcher has been dogged by a merit-hiring scandal that resulted in his own indictment last year for conspiracy.

Charges against Fletcher were dropped as part of an agreement with Attorney General Greg Stumbo, a Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Bruce Lunsford, a businessman and one of six Democratic candidates for governor.

With such a crowded field, it's all but certain the state for the first time will invoke its 1992 law requiring a runoff in June between the party's top two vote-getters if no candidate gets 40 percent on May 22, predicted Jonathan Winburn, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

Despite his legal woes, Fletcher appears to be holding off a challenge from fellow Republican Anne Northup, a former U.S. congresswoman, according to recent polls. The governor also faces wealthy GOP businessman Billy Harper, Fletcher's own campaign finance chairman in 2003.

Fletcher was forced to find another running mate when his right-hand man, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, refused to run with him and threw his support to Northup.

If Fletcher wins the Republican May 22 primary, he may face a former friend as his chief Democratic rival: Lunsford, who Fletcher appointed to a government efficiency panel after Lunsford dropped out of the 2003 governor's race.

Among Democratic contenders, Lunsford, a multimillionaire health-care executive, appears to be running neck-and-neck with Steve Beshear, a former state legislator, attorney general and lieutenant governor who has a campaign plank to bring casino gambling to Kentucky. Another Democratic candidate, state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, dropped out of the race May 7 and endorsed Beshear. Running close behind Lunsford and Beshear are fellow Democrats Steve Henry, another former lieutenant governor and surgeon, and House Speaker Jody Richards. "There isn't a huge spread among the four candidates," said Winburn of Western Kentucky University.

In a historic first, all the Democratic candidates signed a "unity pledge," agreeing not to take potshots at each other and to support the eventual nominee. There is more dust flying in the Republican contest. Northup has attacked Fletcher's tenure for weeks with TV ads, while Fletcher recently started airing ads depicting Northup as a bully. Jobs, health care, the under-funded state employee pension system and gambling are key issues in the race.

Term limits kick in for Bayou State lawmakers

In Louisiana, Blanco is keeping things interesting by dropping hints she might reconsider her decision not to run for a second term as governor. But most observers discount her comments as political posturing for the new legislative session that just opened.

The front-runner is U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who narrowly lost to Blanco in 2003 and went on to capture a seat in Congress the following year. "At the moment, it's Jindal's race to lose. There are no strong Democrats," said Bernie Pinsonat, a partner with the Southern Media and Opinion Research , a polling company in Baton Rouge.

Democrats thought they had a competitive candidate with former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who represented Louisiana in Congress for 33 years and is now a Washington, D.C., lobbyist. However, his candidacy ran into trouble when Republicans challenged whether Breaux legally could run because he has lived in Maryland for the past five years. Breaux got out of the race in April, after he failed to get a quick nod on the residency issue from Louisiana's attorney general, a fellow Democrat up for re-election this year, who declined to issue an opinion.

Democrats also could not turn to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, son of former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu and brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). He d ecided to run for a second term as second in command instead.

One of the leading Democrats in the race was a Republican just a few weeks ago. State Sen. Walter Boasso said he switched parties because "running as a Democrat will give me the best opportunity to push an agenda for change and reform," according to an April 26 statement announcing his candidacy. A self-made millionaire, Boasso has championed reforming the state's levee board system and improving the port system . Foster Campbell , a state public service commissioner, is the other declared Democrat in the race, and his major proposal is to get rid of the state's income tax.

Henry Robertson who heads the history and political science division at Louisiana College in Pineville , La. , said that neither Boasso nor Campbell is "the big name (that) Democrats want or need to take on Jindal" and that Democrats need to find one soon. The primary is Oct. 20. Potential Democratic candidates include Richard Ieyoub, a former attorney general who ran for governor in 2003, and Jim Bernhard, founder and president of the Shaw Group Inc., a Fortune 500 engineering and construction company.

Whoever wins the race will have a power other governors would covet: the ability to appoint the top leadership of the Louisiana House and Senate, Robertson said.

Republicans are hoping a strong win by Jindal will provide coattails for state lawmakers, pushing one of the chambers into Republican control. Democrats already have lost some members in the last six years to politicians who switched to the Republican Party, said Pinsonat , the pollster. Currently Democrats have a 63 to 41 lead over Republicans in the state House, with one Independent. In the Senate, Democrats lead by a 24-15 margin.

New term limits likely will help the GOP in its quest to take control, predicted Robert Hogan, a political science professor at L ouisiana State University . The state's first encounter with term limits will force out 45 House members, of whom only 16 are Republican, and 15 state senators will get the boot, including Senate President Donald Hines, a Democrat, and eight Republicans. "The political fortunes of the Republican Party look bright" in Louisiana , said Hogan.

The prospects are even better in Mississippi , where Barbour looks unbeatable for a second term as governor and the Democratic field just got smaller. Bill Renick, a former chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, whom Barbour succeeded, dropped out of the race in April. The remaining Democratic challengers are former state Rep. Elmer "Louis" Fondren, attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr., William Bond Compton Jr., a teacher, and Fred Smith, a former candidate of agriculture commissioner.