By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 5/21/2007 5:05:19 PM ET 2007-05-21T21:05:19

If any political race of 2007 epitomizes the Republican Party's past and current struggles, it might be Kentucky's GOP gubernatorial primary on Tuesday.

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Ethical troubles — which contributed to the loss of at least nine Republican-held congressional seats last fall — continue to haunt incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher. A state hiring scandal resulted in his indictment that was later dismissed when he struck a deal with prosecutors.

Last year, meanwhile, Iraq and the overall political environment helped topple the Republican who is now trying to defeat Fletcher in the primary: ex-U.S. Rep. Anne Northup.

In this increasingly GOP-leaning state, the fact that Republicans could lose the governor’s office (especially if Fletcher is the nominee) demonstrates that this is a far cry from 2003, when Fletcher first won the office.

Back then, President Bush’s approval ratings were much higher than today. And it was the Democrats – not Republicans – who were parrying ethics charges in the state capital.

“It is a very different environment,” says Joe Gershtenson, the director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University.

Fletcher may have the edge
Analysts believe that Fletcher currently has the edge in the three-way GOP primary involving Northup and businessman Billy Harper. That Fletcher could win – and grab the 40 percent needed to avoid a run off – would be an impressive political turnaround for a governor whose re-election prospects seemed in jeopardy just a year ago.

Fletcher was indicted in 2006 on charges that he illegally rewarded supporters with state jobs. The charges were dropped after he reached a deal with state prosecutors.

But the ordeal turned into a huge embarrassment for him: He invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and he pardoned other officials in his administration who had been caught up in the scandal.

Northup, in fact, has made the troubles surrounding Fletcher a key part of her campaign, contending that if Fletcher wins the primary, Democrats will be the beneficiaries in November’s general election.

“Why are these Democrats happy? They think their opponent will be Ernie Fletcher and their commercials are ready,” an announcer says in one of her TV ads. “If Democrats take back the governor’s office, taxes will go up and liberals will be in control. Kentucky needs a fresh start. Anne Northup can win in November.”

But it increasingly looks like she won’t win on Tuesday, despite having the support from some of the state’s leading Republicans like U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning. (Observers also believe that GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell, the state’s other U.S. senator, is tacitly supporting Northup.)

A recent Louisville Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll shows Fletcher with a 15-point lead over Northup among likely GOP voters (41-26 percent), with Harper at 10 percent.

“I’m beginning to think Fletcher survives,” says Jennifer Duffy, who monitors gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But, she adds, “The general [election] is another story.”

The power of incumbency
Given his problems, how is it that Fletcher seems poised to defeat Northup? For starters, he’s argued that the charges against him have been a Democratic-led “political witch hunt.”

Indeed, that argument gained added traction when the state’s Democratic attorney general who brought the charges against him, Greg Stumbo, became the running mate to one of the Democratic leading candidates for governor.

“I don’t think there was any question that the investigation was politically motivated,” he said at a debate last month.

Fletcher also has touted his record. “We’ve turned a budget deficit into a surplus. Invested in jobs, education, health care and safe roads,” he says in a recent TV ad. “We’re better off now than we were four years ago. And to keep Kentucky moving forward, I ask for your vote.”

Perhaps more than anything else, it is simply difficult for an incumbent governor to lose a primary, especially when he uses his powers as governor to shower patronage and state dollars to line up support.

According to the Cook Political Report’s Duffy, only 14 incumbent governors have ever lost a primary in their bid for re-election. She adds, however, that two of those defeats have come in the past three years – Missouri Democratic Gov. Bob Holden lost his primary to Claire McCaskill in 2004, and Alaska GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski finished third in his primary last year.

If Fletcher wins the primary, Democrats believe they’ll hold the upper hand in the general election.

“I think Fletcher is so weak that no matter who wins the primary we will have an excellent shot at beating Fletcher,” says a Kentucky Democratic strategist who is staying neutral in the party’s own gubernatorial primary.

“Fletcher said he was going to change the culture, and all we have are … indictments and nothing has changed. And so there is an appetite for a fresh start in this state.”

Democratic Governors Association spokesman Brian Namey adds, “I think Kentucky voters are tired of politics as usual.”

Democratic problems
But Republicans argue that the Democratic field might have just as many problems as the GOP field. For one thing, there are six Democrats in the race. As a result, it’s quite likely that none of them will break the 40 percent threshold, which would force a run off on June 26.

Also, in a recent interview, Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan said there are “lots of ghosts of Halloween past running again,” referring to the fact that many of these Democratic candidates have run statewide before – and lost.

The two Democratic front-runners in this crowded field appear to be former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, who has failed in previous bids for governor and the Senate, and businessman Bruce Lunsford, who actually supported Fletcher in 2003.

The Bluegrass Poll showed Beshear leading Lunsford, 27-21 percent, with ex-Lt. Gov Steve Henry at 13 percent.

And Republicans are confident they will hold onto the office.

"Kentucky Republicans are leading their state with strong ideas and solutions,” says Matt Moore, a spokesman at the National Republican Governors Association. “Whether it’s balancing budgets, reforming health care, or improving education, Republican governors are good for America."

But if the polling is right and Fletcher wins on Tuesday, one thing is certain: Democrats, as Northup predicted, will hit Kentucky’s airwaves with advertisements about Fletcher’s troubles.

“They are going to have some easy campaign material,” says Eastern Kentucky University’s Gershtenson, “and certainly beat the governor up.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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