Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Historic election draws little interest

Voters apathetic over thin ballot

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — Kentucky's most historic gubernatorial election in modern history will be held one week from today. Few seem to care.

        A strong incumbent facing weak challengers, a thin ballot and little local campaigning are expected to keep voters away from the polls in droves Nov. 2, despite this being the first time since 1800 that a Kentucky governor is running for a consecutive term.

        “I know there's a governor's race but people feel they just don't have anything to come out for in this election,” Kenton County Clerk Bill Aylor said.

        “We don't have anything locally on the ballot. If we get 10 percent turnout, I'll be surprised.”

        Turnout next Tuesday may not be much better than the 3 percent of the voters locally and 6 percent statewide who cast ballots in the May primary. Both were historic lows.

        Boone County Clerk Marilyn Rouse is hoping for a 15 percent to 20 percent turnout, but she admitted Monday that might be optimistic.

        “Our absentees are actually doing pretty well. We've had 58 so far,” she said. “Maybe I'm being optimistic, but we were so far down in the primary with

        3 percent (turnout) that we have to do better this time.”

        The man at the head of the ballot, Democratic Gov. Paul Patton of Pikeville, isn't as upbeat about the turnout.

        Concerned that a low turnout will diminish his ability to push a legislative agenda in the Kentucky General Assembly or even worse, result in a staggering upset loss, Mr. Patton has campaigned hard to make sure people go to the polls next week.

        “I never thought I would see a 5 percent turnout in a gubernatorial election in Kentucky, which is what happened in the primary,” Mr. Patton said during a campaign visit to Northern Kentucky recently. “A 5 percent turnout in November would be a disaster for Kentucky, in my opinion.”

        Mr. Patton has begun airing campaign commercials in the region, and plans to campaign here again next week. Republican Peppy Martin and Reform candidate Gatewood Galbraith are both expected to be in Northern Kentucky today.

        House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, a Wilder Democrat and close ally to Mr. Patton, said the governor is concerned apathy combined with the sentiment that the race is already over will keep Democrats at home.

        “In any race, you're always concerned that the people opposed to you, the anti-vote, will come out stronger than the votes for you,” Mr. Callahan said Monday.

        “But I think the governor is going to do very well in Campbell County and Northern Kentucky. He didn't carry these areas four years ago, but I predict he will this year.”

        How is it that a Democratic governor can possibly expect to win a GOP bastion like Northern Kentucky, even when his platform has included studying legalized gambling and raising the state's gas tax to provide for road construction and repair?

        The easy answer is that he faces little competition from Ms. Martin, a political neophyte who can't even find much support among her own party's leaders, and Mr. Galbraith, who was hoping for a Jesse Vetura-like movement that hasn't materialized.

        “There's isn't anybody running against Patton that has credibility with the voters,” said Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass, a Democrat who says he will be surprised with a double-digit turnout next week.

        Two reasons for this very odd election year can be traced to a pair of political events that took place earlier:

        • In 1991, Kentucky voters approved a gubernatorial succession constitutional amendment, meaning a sitting governor could run for a second consecutive term. Mr. Patton, who beat Republican Larry Forgy in one of the closest gubernatorial races in 1995, is now running for his second term.

        • In 1996, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a campaign finance law that limits spending in gubernatorial races to about $2 million.

        Even though Republicans have made large political strides in Kentucky in recent years, winning control over the federal delegation and taking over the state Senate this year by wooing disenchanted Democrats, state GOP leaders including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell have blamed the campaign finance law on the party's inability to field a strong candidate this year.

        “It would just be too difficult for a Republican to run against an incumbent Democratic governor on $2 million,'' Mr. McConnell has said. “A Republican would need $4 million to $5 million to compete with an incumbent. The playing field just isn't level under that law.”

        Republicans also took a pass on the so-called downticket races. Democrat incumbents are running unopposed for attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner.

        “Without a strong candidate at the top of the ticket the Republicans apparently felt it wasn't worth it to try and run for the other seats,” said Penny Miller, a University of Kentucky political science professor.


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