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Trio of Gubernatorial Races Will Be First

While the nation is transfixed by the war in Iraq, a relative handful of politicians and political insiders in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana are focusing on upcoming gubernatorial elections that will take place later this year. [IMGCAP(1)]

Journalists and national political observers won’t be able to resist characterizing these three contests as a test of Democratic and Republican strength, even though they aren’t likely to have great predictive value for the 2004 elections.

Consider this historical tidbit that holds for each of the three states: Only twice in the last four cycles did the party winning the gubernatorial race also carry the state in the next presidential election.

Mississippi has gone Republican in each of the last four presidential elections, but Democrats won two of the races for governor (in 1987 and 1999). In Kentucky, the Democratic nominee for governor has been successful in each of the past four elections, while the state went twice for a member of the Bush family (George W. in 2000 and George H.W. in 1988) for president.

And in Louisiana, in 1995-1996 and 1987-1988, voters chose a governor from one party and a presidential nominee from a different party.

But even if the results won’t necessarily foreshadow the outcome for 2004, the three governors’ races will give one of the parties bragging rights and the opportunity to build momentum as the off-year comes to a close.

Two of the incumbents, Democrat Paul Patton of Kentucky and Republican Mike Foster of Louisiana, are prevented from running for re-election, while Democrat Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi is seeking a second term.

A Democratic sweep of all three states would boost party morale, while Republican victories in even two states (which would mean a net gain for the party) would put Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe on the defensive.

The races in all three states are competitive.

Louisiana has had a Republican governor since 1995, but Democrats have reason for optimism. All candidates for governor run in an “open primary,” with the top two finishers, regardless of party, meeting in a runoff if no candidate wins a majority.

A number of politically well-established, financially-viable Democrats are in the race, including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, former state Senate President Randy Ewing, state Treasurer John Kennedy and former Rep. Buddy Leach.

The GOP field is even larger and most of its hopefuls are less well known. The list of candidates includes former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary Bobby Jindal, Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman, state Sens. John Hainkel and Ken Hollis, state Rep. Hunt Downer, former state Auditor Dan Kyle and former Gov. David Treen.

Many Republican insiders, worried that the large number of GOP candidates will divide the party’s vote, are already talking about the possibility that two Democrats will make the runoff.

However, some Republican strategists believe that the field will shrink as the longer shots come to realize that they can’t raise enough money to win. Still, party insiders clearly are worried about their ability to hold the state’s top office.

The Kentucky race is almost as messy as the Louisiana contest.

Both parties face multi-candidate primaries, but state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) and Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) are the clear front runners for the general election.

Chandler is opposed in the Democratic primary by state House Speaker Jody Richards and wealthy health care businessman Bruce Lunsford. Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson (R) and state Rep. Steve Nunn (R), son of a former governor, hope to overtake Fletcher, who suffered a blow of unknown proportions yesterday when a state judge threw his running mate off the ballot for failing to meet residency requirements.

The combination of Patton’s personal problems, a weak state economy and an undeniable state trend toward the GOP means serious problems for the Democrats. But history is still on the Democrats’ side. While the Republicans hold both of the state’s Senate seats and five of its six Congressional districts, the Republicans have won only one election for governor, in 1967, since the end of World War II.

The Mississippi race is almost certain to boil down to incumbent Musgrove against former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, though both frontrunners face primaries from trial lawyers.

Democrats paint Barbour, who lost a 1982 Senate race to then-Sen. John Stennis (D), as a rich Washington lobbyist who is out-of-touch with state voters, while Republicans counter that the governor is responsible for the state’s fiscal problems, including a state budget shortfall of almost $100 million this year.

The races for governor in all three states are expected to be close and could go either way. And that’s why the two national parties are so interested in the outcomes.

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