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Ky. Governor: With Chandler Out, Who Will Dems Turn to?

Rep. Ben Chandler's (D) decision not to run for governor in Kentucky next year throws open the field in what should be a prime pick-up opportunity for his party.

Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky
Congressman Ben Chandler won't make a second run for governor in Kentucky next year. (AP Photo)

Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), who has battled through several years of ethics scandals in his administration, has said he will run for reelection. The swirl of scandal has already cost Fletcher his 2003 running mate -- Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, who announced earlier this year that he will not join Fletcher again on the 2007 ballot. And it has prompted a primary challenge from Billy Harper, who has pledged to spend as much as $10 million of his own money on the race and has already run several television ads.

For Fletcher to survive, he must find a way to reconcile with his one-time political mentor -- Sen. Mitch McConnell, the unquestioned godfather of Kentucky Republican politics and the incoming Senate Minority Leader. If McConnell blesses Fletcher's bid -- either publicly or privately -- the governor will be in much stronger shape in the primary.

Should Fletcher make it to the general election (and he looks like a decent bet at the moment to do so), there is a cavalcade of Democrats now considering the race. With the help of Pat Crowley, who is one of the best political reporters in the state of Kentucky, here's The Fix's early handicapping about the strengths and weaknesses of the potential Democratic primary field (listed alphabetically):

* Jack Conway: Conway is seen as a rising star in state politics despite the fact that he lost the only race he has ever run -- against Rep. Anne Northup (R) in 2002. Conway might well have won that contest were it not for his ties to then-Gov. Paul Patton (D), who was preparing to leave office in disgrace following his admission of an extramarital affair. Conway is not independently wealthy like Lunsford and Owen, so he would need to prove he could raise the money to be competitive in a primary with one or both of these self-financers.

* Steve Henry: After serving as lieutenant governor under Gov. Paul Patton (D), Henry, a pediatric surgeon by trade, has disappeared somewhat from the political scene. But he insists he will run next year no matter what the field looks like. He has statewide name identification and the benefit of being married to Heather French Henry, a former Miss America. Henry has some political baggage as well. In 2003, he agreed to pay a $162,000 settlement to the federal government but not admit guilt in an investigation over billing for surgeries at which Henry was not present.

* Bruce Lunsford: Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, spent $8 million of his own money in a run for governor in 2003. He dropped out of that contest just days before the primary and endorsed state House Speaker Jody Richards -- Chandler's main opponent for the nomination. In the general election, Lunsford decided to endorse Fletcher over Chandler -- a decision sure not to sit well with Democratic primary voters in 2007.

* Jonathan Miller: Miller, like Owen, has been around Kentucky politics for quite some time despite the fact that he is only 39 years old. Miller ran for former Rep. Scotty Baesler's (D) open 6th District seat in 1998 but performed poorly in the primary. The following year he was elected state treasurer and was reelected to that job in 2003. Miller was mentioned as a possible candidate in the special election called after Fletcher left Congress to become governor, but he passed on that contest. He has been in discussions with Owen lately about the possibility of running as a ticket. The problem? Both men want to be governor, not lieutenant governor.

* Dan Mongiardo: "Dr. Dan" nearly wound up in the Senate in 2004 when Jim Bunning committed a serious of verbal gaffes that nearly cost him his seat. Mongiardo still holds a seat in the state Senate and has some personal wealth that he could bring to bear on the contest. Mongiardo has said he is making calls seeking support.

* Charlie Owen: Owen seems like he has been around Kentucky politics forever. His most recent foray was in 2003 when he was Chandler's runningmate in the Democrats' losing race against Fletcher. Prior to that bid Owen had run unsuccessfully for the 3rd District congressional seat in 1994 -- spending $800,000 of his own money -- and for Senate in 1998. In that race he dropped $6.6 million but placed second in the Democratic primary behind then Rep. Scotty Baesler. Owen was courted to challenge Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in 2004 but passed on the contest. Owen's name identification and deep pockets recommend him as a candidate. But, his multiple past losses could lead to him being seen as yesterday's news by Kentucky voters.

* Greg Stumbo: The state's current Attorney General, Stumbo has been Fletcher's lead antagonist over the past few years. Stumbo had pledged not to run if Chandler was a candidate but with the Congressman out of the field is sure to take a serious look. Earlier this month, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Stumbo would conduct a poll to test his viability in a Democratic primary and make a decision by Dec. 1.

Read Al Cross's column from Sunday's Louisville Courier-Journal about Kentucky Democrats' possible gubernatorial candidates.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 4, 2006; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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