This sparsely settled valley around Burtonville in the rumpled
hills of northeastern Kentucky is about as far from Washington and
Wall Street as you can get. Yet people here do keep an eye on the
national economy. For good reason.
Once there were four stores in town. Now Charles Hardymon's
garage is now the only one open. True, there is a restaurant among
the whitewashed buildings that pass for Burtonville's Main Street.
But it's open by appointment only: In other words, you have to order
the restaurant before you order your food. Overall, unemployment in
Lewis County - named after Meriwether Lewis - hovers near 20
The perceptions of how much this community, and hundreds like it
across Kentucky, are tied to the US economy - and how well that
economy is doing - may help determine who wins a crucial governor's
race here Tuesday.
The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Ben Chandler, blames
what he considers the failed economic policies of the Bush
administration for hardship in places like Burtonville. His
opponent, US Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), not only supports the
president's stewardship; he prides himself on being "Bush's man" on
Capitol Hill. As a result, the governor's race here is shaping up as
the most telling bellwether yet on whether Democrats might exploit
Mr. Bush's handling of the economy in 2004.
"This race is about whether Chandler is going to be successful in
making this a national economic referendum," says Joe Gershtenson,
director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics in
To be sure, there are local issues that will help determine if
Republicans, trying to pick up governorships here and in Mississippi
Tuesday, will continue a realignment of the South.
This being Kentucky, after all, personality, history, and lineage
often mean as much as issues, and there's plenty of all three in
this year's battle. Mr. Chandler has won statewide elections three
times, and his family's political roots go back 100 years. His
grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was governor in the 1930s and
later in the 1950s.
Yet Mr. Fletcher is formidable, too. A doctor and a pilot, the
three-term congressman has decried ethical lapses of the Democratic
administration in Frankfort. Though Chandler hasn't been tarred in
the scandals - and, in fact, has done some of the prosecuting - his
affiliation with the party in power hasn't helped.
"Issues mean less in Kentucky than any other state," says one
longtime political observer who knows both men. "People here vote on
the basis of personality and relationships and family."
So far, Fletcher is doing well: He's up by nine points with a
widening lead, and many analysts expect him to take back the
governorship after 32 years of Democratic control.
The Mississippi race is closer, deadlocked between Republican
Haley Barbour and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). Republicans may be
poised for another victory in Louisiana, where Lieut. …