What Kentucky Portends for 2008

Is the Bluegrass State turning Blue? Let me ask that another way. Is Steve Beshear the new Louie Nunn? If so, Democrats around the country have more reason to celebrate Kentucky's gubernatorial election results this week than they know.

Let me explain.

A generation ago, in 1967, a lawyer from southern Kentucky named Louie B. Nunn became the first Republican since World War II to be elected governor of the state. A year later Richard Nixon won the White House. The new president always regarded Nunn's victory in the border state of Kentucky as a harbinger of his own.

More important, Nunn and his brother, Lee, became kingpins of a new kind of Republican Party—not the "Lincoln Republicans" of old, but the post-Goldwater Nixon Republicans, who won the hearts of white voters in the South. Nixon's men called it the "Southern Strategy," and it remains to this day a pillar of the modern GOP.

Now, let's skip to this week's results in Kentucky. Democrat Steve Beshear beat the pants off of Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher—the protégé of the man who inherited and built up the Nunn machine, Sen. Mitch McConnell. Fletcher had, as they say, been "dogged by scandal"; he was essentially trying to override the state's public-employee merit system, and the unions hated him because he wanted to turn Kentucky into a right-to-work state. Still, he had all that GOP history behind him.

Fletcher did his best to raise Bible Belt fears, especially over Beshear's support for casino gambling at race tracks such as Churchill Downs.

Beshear is no glamour guy, but a recognizable type in Kentucky: the son of a small-town preacher who becomes a politician in the name of the working people of the state. They tend to be lean (too many cigarettes at some point) and capable of giving what they used to call in Kentucky a "stemwinder" speech. (Former Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford is the model for all of this.)

More important than Beshear's overall victory margin—59 percent to 41 percent—was the geography of his victory. I'm looking at a map of Kentucky (a habit of mine since my days as a reporter on The Courier-Journal in Louisville). I see that Beshear won nearly 100 of Kentucky's 120 counties, and that Fletcher essentially was backed into the old, Lincoln Republican, southeast central corner of the state.

In other words, the Southern Strategy failed in this case.

Republicans might dismiss Fletcher's loss as an isolated case of a governor brought down by a hail of corruption charges, but there may well be something deeper going on. Last year Republican Rep. Anne Northup, another McConnell protégé, lost her House seat in Louisville to an unlikely challenger, John Yarmuth, an anti-war activist and magazine editor.

The Democrats' next target is, of course, McConnell himself; he is up for reelection in 2008. Democrats don't just want to take the seat; they want to attack the operational nerve center of the GOP—McConnell serves as Senate minority leader.

An elaborate "Ditch Mitch" effort is being mounted by the Democrats. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is said to have offered $10 million worth of support to lure good candidates into the field.

McConnell is a tough, wily character, and even staunch Democrats aren't yet willing to say that he can be beaten. But in the latest polls he is running under 50 percent in match-ups with various Democratic possibilities—a danger sign for any incumbent.

Do the Democrats have a chance to take the state back in the presidential race? Bill Clinton and Al Gore won Kentucky in 1992 and 1996. But they could at least make a passing attempt at being good ole boys in the Beshear mold. In the eyes of at least one leading Democrat in the state, only former senator John Edwards has a chance of filling that role.

But the deeper question is this: does Beshear's victory presage a sea change in American politics, the way Nunn's did a generation ago? I don't know, but that is what the next year is all about.