Signs point to Beshear win, low turnout

By Kevin Wheatley Published:

Barring a dramatic change over the next few days, political experts expect Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to handily beat Republican challenger David Williams Tuesday.

Beshear, who holds a significant double-digit lead in recent polls, and Williams top a ballot that hasn’t generated much interest among voters across the state.

Secretary of State Elaine Walker predicted Tuesday’s turnout somewhere between 25 and 28 percent based on absentee voting numbers, down from the 37 percent turnout when Beshear beat Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2007.

That would be the lowest since 22 percent of Kentucky voters re-elected Democratic Gov. Paul Patton in 1999 to a second term against Republican Peppy Martin.

Franklin County Clerk Guy Zeigler says he expects voter turnout to be 45-50 percent locally, a drop from the 58 percent turnout here in 2007.

“I don’t live in Kentucky, but I have followed this contest closely enough to know that it has consistently been one-sided with the outcome widely anticipated in both parties as an easy re-election for Beshear,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“It’s hard to get voters excited when the top race looks like a runaway.”

Political experts expected a closer match when it became clear Williams, arguably the most influential lawmaker in Frankfort as president of the state Senate, would challenge Beshear.

But Williams faced an uphill battle after a closer-than-expected Republican primary in May, when he beat Louisville businessman Phil Moffett by 10 points, experts say.

“If he (Williams) campaigned normally and responsibly, he was doomed to be the Republican Party’s sacrificial lamb in an election they were almost certainly not going to win,” said D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

“If he went in with all guns blazing, he could shake things up, but he was still likely to lose – and he might have done lasting damage to his public image as well.

“For the most part, especially until recently, Williams seems to have found a decent balance between fighting the good fight and staying within the bounds of healthy political competition, which is about the best his supporters could have expected.”

Though Williams ran ads linking Beshear to President Barack Obama, Beshear did well to keep Obama, who lost Kentucky to Republican John McCain by 16 points in 2008 with a 63 percent turnout, at arm’s length, experts say.

“Beshear sits at the sweet spot ideologically, as a Democrat with a relatively moderate stance and a reasonably folksy image,” said Voss, who declined to predict the race’s outcome.

“As long as left-wing Democrats do not try to punish a candidate like that – as they did, for example, to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas – that candidate usually will win.

“Voters in southern states in particular are accustomed to voting for Democrats locally even though they dislike members of the party in Washington, D.C.”

 Beshear, who had more than $580,000 left in his campaign on Oct. 24 according to finance records, has also maintained a positive image throughout his campaign, said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Kentucky Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement at Eastern Kentucky University.

“The governor did well to come out early and define himself as being ‘tried, tested, tough’ and sticking to that message throughout the campaign,” Gershtenson said.

“He emphasized his leadership through hard times and was fairly effective in conveying a tone of being calm in the face of adverse situations and keeping the Commonwealth from having suffered as much as – or more than – might have been expected given the national situation.”

Williams had more than $240,000 available in his campaign account on Oct. 24, according to finance records.

And even with growing interest in the possible Republican challengers to Obama in the upcoming presidential election, experts don’t expect any anti-Obama fervor to reach statewide elections here.

“Kentuckians already know Beshear, so in part it is a thumbs-up, thumbs-down referendum on his first term, and the voters’ evaluation of that is as positive as their collective view of Obama is negative,” Sabato said.

A big win by Beshear could trickle down to other Democrats on the ballot, but the length of his coattails remains to be seen, experts say.

Gershtenson said he thinks races for attorney general, secretary of state and agriculture commissioner will be interesting to watch Tuesday.

An Aug. 30 poll from Public Policy Polling showed Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat, leading Republican Todd P’Pool by 11 points; Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes leading Republican Bill Johnson by three points in the secretary of state race; and Republican James Comer leading Democrat Bob Farmer by one point for agriculture commissioner.

“Certainly a big win by Gov. Beshear should help Democrats down the ballot,” Gershtenson said. “However, some of them need help, so I wouldn’t predict a clean sweep by the Democrats.”

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