Skip to content

There She Is, Miss Democratic House Candidate

Many of the rising stars for both the Republican and Democratic parties of Kentucky are currently on display in this year’s state elections. [IMGCAP(1)]

Looking downballot — past the much-hyped re-election race between embattled Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) — Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s (R) re-election campaign and the open-seat attorney general race involving attorney Jack Conway (D) are two races that showcase hot young commodities.

In 2002, at age 33, Conway, who was then a cabinet secretary to then-Gov. Paul Patton (D), ran in Kentucky’s 3rd district against then-Rep. Anne Northup (R). He spent more than $1.5 million on the race to Northup’s $3.2 million and lost by just 7,300 votes.

Many Democrats say Conway was on his way to winning that campaign but that revelations in September 2002 of Patton being involved in a sex scandal ended up hurting Conway at the polls. But Conway is back, and Democrats already are eagerly speculating about his future opportunities beyond his expected win in the attorney general’s race.

Meanwhile, Grayson is considered the future of the Kentucky Republican Party. Assuming he survives his re-election — which is no sure thing considering the residual anti-Fletcher sentiment that appears to be tainting the campaigns of other Republican state officials — he will have two statewide elections under his belt before he’s 36 years old.

If Sen. Jim Bunning (R), who will be close to 80 years old by the time he’s up for re-election in 2010, chooses to retire, Grayson, who like Bunning hails from the northern part of the state, is seen as a top Senate possibility for Republicans. Another possible candidate for an open Senate seat is Rep. Geoff Davis (R), who also hails from the northern 4th district. If Davis were to run for Senate, Grayson would be viewed as a natural replacement.

Like many Republicans in Kentucky, Grayson has been brought up with the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

To get a sense of just how much influence McConnell has over GOP politics in the Bluegrass State, one simply needs to know that the Republican Party of Kentucky makes its headquarters in the Mitch McConnell Building in the state capital of Frankfort.

Over two decades, McConnell has personally recruited, mentored and financed several Republican rising stars who have gone on to be long-term incumbents in various state and Congressional offices. Fletcher, Northup and 1st district Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) are just some of the well-known Kentucky Republicans who owe a debt of support to McConnell.

McConnell Chief of Staff Billy Piper said last week that the Senator’s influence in the state “is not so much finding individual candidates but helping create the environment in Kentucky that talented Republicans can take advantage of.” He said McConnell’s leadership has allowed the state party to organize, strategize and “helped foster an environment where a guy like Trey Grayson can run with the wind at his back.”

Even Democrats recognize McConnell’s efforts in making Kentucky a reliably Republican state on national election maps over the years.

“McConnell has always been very good at finding a candidates and making sure they don’t have primaries,” acknowledged Jim Cauley, Beshear’s campaign manager.

Meanwhile, Democrats often have burned resources in bloody primary battles that have left them vulnerable in the general election.

But Democrats say their own recruiting and mentoring programs are now catching up.

“McConnell deserves credit. We actually have been for years way behind when it comes to building a farm system,” said Jonathan Miller, state treasurer and chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “But we’ve made a real effort over the last couple years to start developing a farm team and we think ours stands up and is now stronger than theirs.”

Miller pointed to 38-year-old state Sen. Ray Jones (D), who hails from Rep. Hal Rogers’ (R) district, and 36-year-old state Sen. R.J. Palmer (D) as up-and-comers in the party, along with attorney Todd Hollenbach (D), who is hoping to replace Miller as state treasurer next month.

Miller added that under the leadership of Beshear, the state Democratic Party also is making a real effort to improve the representation of women in Kentucky politics.

A 2006 study by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the State University of New York at Albany ranked Kentucky second to last in its number of female policy leaders in state executive, legislative and judicial offices.

Miller said Kentucky Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Moore, who is a well-known lawyer in the state, and Heather French Henry, a former Miss America, are two rising female stars in the state Democratic party. He said Henry, who has continued her Miss America platform work as an advocate for veterans, is viewed by many Democrats to be a top prospect to run against Davis in the 4th district, although she has yet to indicate a desire to for the seat.

And though Miller added that the Republican bench in the state doesn’t go much deeper than Grayson, Kentucky Republican operatives pointed to state Sen. Damon Thayer, 40, who resides in Rep. Ben Chandler’s (D) 6th district, and state Sen. Brett Guthrey, 43, from Bowling Green, as legislators who party officials could see running for Congress one day. Erwin Roberts (R), an attorney from the Louisville area, already is challenging freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D) in 2008.

While both parties are confident that they have good candidates for future vacancies, a more pressing concern for Democrats is finding a challenger to McConnell next year. Possibilities include Chandler, state Attorney General Greg Stumbo, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and former state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo and businessmen Charlie Owen and Owsley Brown II.