Five weeks before Kentucky voters head to the polls to choose their new governor, both parties are quietly making preparations for a possible special election in Rep. Ernie Fletcher’s (R) 6th district.
If Fletcher defeats state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) in the governor’s race, he will be sworn in Dec. 8 and GOP sources expect him to declare his Congressional seat vacant the next day. Under state law, the governor cannot call a special election any sooner than 35 days after the vacancy is official.
Under that abbreviated campaign scenario, the race would likely garner serious attention and heavy spending from both national parties and would be cast as an early bellwether of voter intent for the 2004 elections.
The district, which takes in the state capital of Frankfort as well as Lexington, would have been carried by President Bush with 54 percent in 2000 but is by no means a slam-dunk Republican seat.
Already one candidate — Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn (D) — has filed an exploratory committee to begin raising money for a possible race.
But Kannensohn is far from the only person — Democrat or Republican — looking at the contest.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said state Republican Party Chairwoman Ellen Williams, one of a handful of top-tier Republicans interested in the race. “There are a lot of people thinking about it.”
Aside from Kannensohn, state Rep. Susan Westrom, who is the current state Democratic Party chairwoman, as well as state Sens. R.J. Palmer and Ernesto Scorsone, are seen as potentially strong Democratic candidates.
For Republicans, Williams, state Sens. Alice Forgy Kerr and Tom Buford, state Rep. Stan Lee, and former Fletcher Chief of Staff and current campaign manager Daniel Groves are all mentioned.
The unique nominating process — as laid out by each party’s governing bylaws — ensures that there will be no primaries in the special election and is heavily weighted toward individuals who are well-known within activist circles.
If a vacancy occurs, both state party executive committees will be charged with selecting their nominee. The executive committees comprise activists from throughout the state.
Each county in the district will have a weighted vote dependent on the percentage of registered party voters in their area.
The candidate who receives a simple plurality of executive committee votes will be the nominee.
As a result, several would-be candidates are already attempting to pigeonhole executive committee members for their support in a special election scenario, although both Williams and state Democratic Party Executive Director Mark Riddle downplayed the frequency of those conversations among the most serious contenders.
“There are very few peeps about folks trying to see whether they have enough votes on the executive committee,” Riddle said.
Williams said she believed the courting of support for the House race was “premature.”
On the national level, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee are watching the Fletcher-Chandler race closely and are preparing for a possible vacancy. The most recent poll has shown Fletcher and Chandler dead even in a state where a Republican was last elected governor in 1971.
“There is some initial planning going on but there is still an election to be won,” said NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti. “Assuming Mr. Fletcher wins the governorship we have an opening we will have to deal with.”
Democrats are more bullish about the vacancy.
“We are focused like a laser beam on the possibility of a special election,” said DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards.
Bernards added that the DCCC has “developed a field plan and done our targeting” in preparation for the opening.
Already the hypothetical Kentucky special election is drawing comparisons to the 2001 race in Virginia’s 4th district — the last time a competitive district hosted a special election.
That race, created by the death of Rep. Norm Sisisky (D), was staged in a district where Bush received just 50 percent in 2000 and that was nearly 40 percent black.
The party nominees — state Sens. Randy Forbes (R) and Louise Lucas (D) — were financially and organizationally propped up by the national parties, who painted the race as an early report card on the Bush administration.
All told, while the campaigns spent roughly $700,000 combined in the four-month campaign, the NRCC and DCCC spent nearly 10 times that on issue advertising and voter turnout efforts.
Democrats attacked Forbes on the president’s tax-cut proposal and his support for allowing younger workers to bypass Social Security and invest in private retirement accounts. Republicans hit Lucas on her past support for tax increases.
Forbes won a 52 percent to 48 percent victory, a triumph that many Republicans believe presaged their six-seat House pickup in November 2002.
Forti rejected the comparison between the two races, noting that unlike the Virginia race, this contest would take place in the shadow of a presidential election.
“A lot is going to change between January and November,” he predicted.