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Election Day 2003: A Prelude to 2004

Parties Closely Watching Kentucky, Philly Today

As voters head to the polls today for state and local elections, close observers of House and Senate contests are already analyzing the impact a handful of these races will have on the political playing field next November.

While many will seek to sift through the tea leaves of today’s election for signs of President Bush’s relative strength, the outcomes will more likely affect recruiting and turnout in down-ballot races next year.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Kentucky race for governor, where Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) carries a slight lead in the polls over state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) heading into Election Day.

Kentucky Democrats, who have held the governor’s mansion since 1971, have been dogged by revelations that came to light last year concerning Gov. Paul Patton’s (D) affair with a state employee.

Many state and national observers believe that if Chandler can overcome the Patton drag on his candidacy, a number of Democrats will be emboldened to challenge Sen. Jim Bunning (R) and Rep. Anne Northup (R) in 2004. Both are considered potentially vulnerable.

Currently, only former state Attorney General Fred Cowan (D) is in the Senate race against Bunning. Cowan is not considered a serious challenger, netting just $233,000 by the end of September. By contrast, Bunning had more than $2.6 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter.

A number of other Democrats are mentioned, but none will announce any decision until the governor’s race is decided.

Leading that list is state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, who serves as vice chairman of the state party and has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Fletcher during the campaign.

Mongiardo, who is an otolaryngologist by training, was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 but found himself redistricted out of the seat the following year.

He ran and won another state Senate seat in 2002 and briefly held both. When he was sworn into his new eastern Kentucky seat, he resigned the old seat, which encompassed much of northern Kentucky.

Observers believe Mongiardo will run for the Senate regardless of the outcome of today’s gubernatorial tilt.

Other Democrats mentioned as potential Senate candidates are involved in today’s elections.

Lt. Gov. nominee Charlie Owen is often mentioned as a potential Senate candidate but would be hard-pressed to pivot from an unsuccessful gubernatorial race to another statewide bid.

State Treasurer Jonathan Miller is leading in his campaign for a second term but has had to campaign heavily for the post, leaving him little time to plan a Senate race.

In Northup’s Louisville-based 3rd district — a perennial Democratic target — both 2002 nominee Jack Conway and Jefferson County Court Clerk Tony Miller are considering the race.

Knowledgeable Democrats believe that if Chandler is defeated, Conway will not pursue a rematch with Northup. Conway, a former deputy cabinet secretary to Patton, appeared to be making headway against Northup last cycle when the Patton story broke. He lost the race 52 percent to 48 percent.

Miller, who lost a bid for lieutenant governor earlier this year, is less likely to be swayed by the results of the governor’s race.

In Fletcher’s 6th district, there has already been significant jockeying for the potential special election that his ascendancy to the governor’s mansion would create.

A Fletcher win would likely provide a boost to the eventual Republican nominee in the form of an energized GOP base. This impact would be even more powerful given the short time frame expected for the special election.

If elected today, Fletcher would be sworn in Dec. 8 and, according to GOP sources, declare the seat vacant the next day. Under state law, he could call a special election no sooner than 35 days from the date the vacancy becomes official. That timeline would mean a special election in late January or February.

Among the Republicans mentioned as possible candidates to succeed him are state party Chairwoman Ellen Williams, Fletcher gubernatorial campaign manager Daniel Groves, state Sens. Alice Forgy Kerr and Tom Buford, as well as state Rep. Stan Lee.

Williams and Groves would seem best positioned to reap the benefits of a Fletcher victory thanks to their close connections to the campaign.

Already one Democratic candidate, Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn (D), has formed an exploratory committee to begin raising money for the race. Other Democrats mentioned include state Sens. Ernesto Scorsone and R.J. Palmer, state Rep. Susan Westrom and Jonathan Miller, the state treasurer.

There is some concern in Democratic circles, however, that several of these top-tier prospects will be unwilling to run if Chandler loses by more than 10 points.

Meanwhile, both national parties are also keenly watching the outcome of the Philadelphia mayoral race, where incumbent Mayor John Street (D) is facing a rematch against businessman Sam Katz (R).

The race had essentially been a dead heat until late last month, when Street pulled ahead after Philadelphia police discovered an FBI bugging device in his mayoral office. Street now leads Katz by a double-digit margin, according to two recent polls.

Keeping control of City Hall in Philadelphia is especially key for Democratic hopes of winning the battleground state in next year’s presidential election. Pennsylvania voted for Al Gore in 2000, and the state is considered to be one of the hottest battlegrounds in the 2004 White House contest.

Street’s ability to help turn out black voters in the 2000 presidential race was an enormous asset for Democrats, and if he was to lose re-election today his absence could certainly hurt the party next year. It could also prove detrimental to Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D), the presumptive nominee for Senate who is likely to square off against Sen. Arlen Specter (R) next year.

“This is not just the last election of 2003; it’s the first election of 2004,” Gore said at a campaign stop with the mayor on Sunday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

If Katz was to become mayor, it could also impact the race to replace Hoeffel (D) in the 13th district, which includes northeast portions of the city and the adjacent affluent Montgomery County suburbs.

The socially conservative area is Katz’s base, and if he was to become mayor he could boost the prospects of the 13th district Republican nominee.

At this point, the GOP frontrunner in the race is ophthalmologist Melissa Brown, a moderate like Katz who came close to defeating Hoeffel last cycle.

The only other statewide race on the docket today is in Mississippi, where Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) faces lobbyist Haley Barbour (R). Barbour holds a slim lead in recent polling.

Louisiana will choose its next governor on Nov. 15. Former Health and Human Services official Bobby Jindal (R) is running ahead of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) in the polls. The winner will replace term-limited Gov. Mike Foster (R).

With Republicans gaining political strength in the South for the past three decades, additional statehouse losses for Democrats in the region would be devastating.

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