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NRCC Takes Verbal Swing at Chandler

With Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) set to be sworn in as Kentucky’s governor in three weeks, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a veiled threat to Democrats’ first-choice candidate in the upcoming special election to replace the 6th district Congressman.

NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti called state Attorney General and 2003 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Chandler “the next Dario Herrera.”

Herrera was highly touted by national Democrats in a 2002 Nevada House race, but a series of ethics charges hobbled his candidacy and he lost a competitive open seat by 19 points. Without elaborating, Forti suggested that Chandler could fall victim to similar accusations.

“There is a lot of information that did not come out in the governor’s race that would be relevant in a Congressional race,” he said.

Republicans’ ramped-up rhetoric comes as Chandler nears a decision on the special House election just weeks after he fell to Fletcher 55 percent to 45 percent.

Chandler is on vacation this week and out of the state, according to a spokesman.

“He is considering the opportunity,” the spokesman said, adding a Chandler decision will come by week’s end.

If Chandler chooses not to run in the special election, Democrats are likely to turn to either state Sen. R.J. Palmer or state Rep. Susan Westrom, who stepped down as state party chairwoman Friday.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is currently in the field with a poll testing various candidates, according to knowledgeable Democratic sources.

Republicans seem to be coalescing behind state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, although state Reps. Lonnie Napier and Stan Lee and state Sen. Tom Buford are also in the mix for the Republican nomination.

Kerr was first elected in 1998 to a Fayette County (Lexington) district and re-elected in 2002. Her brother, Larry Forgy, ran a near-miss gubernatorial campaign in 1995 against Democratic Gov. Paul Patton.

Because of the state’s unique nominating process, neither party will hold a primary.

Fletcher will be sworn in on Dec. 9 and is expected to resign his Congressional seat the next day, which would give him control of the timing of the special election to replace him.

The nominee for each party would be chosen by its executive committee, a group of roughly 30 party regulars.

Each of the 16 counties in the district will have a weighted vote based on the percentage of registered party voters in its area. The candidate who receives a simple plurality of executive committee votes will be the nominee.

Under state law, Fletcher can call an election no sooner than 35 days after the vacancy is made official. That would place the special election in late January or early February.

Chandler has been urged to run by state and national party leaders despite losing the district by 10 points to Fletcher in the gubernatorial election.

Some Democratic observers believe that because of the disappointing result in the governor’s race, however, Chandler might not be able to secure the necessary backing from the executive committee. Chandler was elected attorney general in 1995, and his term ends next month.

Westrom, a state representative from Fayette County since 1998, has been the biggest proponent of a Chandler Congressional bid.

In the news release announcing her departure as state chairwoman, Westrom “expressed interest” in the 6th district race. She would likely receive the backing of EMILY’s List, which would provide a major financial boost in the abbreviated campaign.

Palmer is also interested but said he “would like to get a little bit better picture of the race” before making a final decision. He said his ultimate choice does not depend on what Chandler decides.

“Whether or not Ben runs, this is an important decision for me and my family,” Palmer said.

Although he has served only five years in the state Legislature, Palmer has proven to be a strong candidate.

After being elected to the state House in 1998, Palmer ran in a special election for a swing state Senate seat in 2001. Republicans had hoped to increase their one-seat majority in the body and spent heavily to do so.

Palmer raised $168,000 for the contest — twice what his Republican opponent did — and survived attacks regarding a 1996 drunken driving conviction. He won the race 54 percent to 46 percent. After redistricting in 2001, Palmer defeated a fellow Democratic incumbent to win a full term.

Palmer said his experience in a special election may give him a leg up among executive committee members since he “understands” what it takes to win such a race.

Other Democrats mentioned include state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, who won a seven-way primary in 1998 but lost the general election to Fletcher, Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn and state Auditor Ed Hatchett.

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