With five hours to go before the polls open, every vote counts. That's why Ben Chandler is at a Bowling Green, Ky., Waffle House at 2 in the morning, nearing the end of an exhausting, 30-hour dash around the state. Already behind schedule, the Democratic candidate for governor still has a few stops to make, so tries to ignore the young woman in a G.I. Joe T-shirt pestering him about his issues.
"He blew me off at first," says Anna Mieke Wade, who wandered over from a hotel across the street. "But I pressed. Then he hit all my buttons." For Ms. Wade that means teacher pay and class size, and she seems impressed by Mr. Chandler's answers. She's also worried about the Republicans' position on health care. "What will [they] do for me if I, God forbid, break my leg?" she wants to know. "Because I don't have any health insurance."
Another voter won over. It seems the middle-of-the-night campaign stop may have been worthwhile-except that Ms. Wade can't vote. She's a Canadian driving home from business in Shreveport, La., and despite the Howard Dean button on her backpack, she has no say on who gets elected south of the border.
Mr. Chandler, as it turns out, may have fared better campaigning in Canada. Despite a 32-year Democratic lock on the governor's mansion in Frankfort, he lost Tuesday's election by more than 100,000 votes to Ernie Fletcher, a former family-practice physician currently in his third term as a Republican congressman from Lexington. Democrats tried for months to blame the national GOP for Kentucky's economic woes, and Mr. Chandler portrayed the race as a chance to send a message to President Bush.
The president got a message, all right, but it wasn't the one Mr. Chandler and his allies were hoping for. Heading into a presidential election year, Democratic strategists are pinning their hopes on the Midwest, where struggling economies may spell voter discontent with the present administration. The Chandler race was considered a good test case for the Democrats' message: As a Midwestern border state that twice went for Bill Clinton and has lost more than 50,000 jobs since Mr. Bush took office, Kentucky should have been just the kind of place where the Democrats could make their case against the president.
For months, they tried to do just that, with rhetoric that all but promoted congressman Fletcher to the office of vice president. News releases trumpeted the "Fletcher-Bush economic disaster" and every speech criticized the "Bush-Fletcher policies" coming out of Washington. A Democratic website portrayed the Republican candidate as a gun-toting cartoon character named Fletcher-Bush, "The Job Terminator," and Democratic aides took to wearing a giant "Job Terminator" foam head while passing out pink slips at campaign events.
While Rep. Fletcher campaigned hard against corruption in the state capital, where incumbent Gov. Paul Patton was embroiled in a nasty sex scandal, Mr. Chandler insisted repeatedly that the state's problems originated further afield: "There's an effort to talk about a mess in Frankfort, but there's really a mess in Washington. The reason that we've got difficulty in funding our universities is because the Washington administration has done, quite frankly, a lousy job with our economy."
For a while, the economic attacks appeared to be gaining traction. Mr. Chandler "has a powerful message," bragged a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. "I would not be surprised if the economy and unemployment become the seminal issues in many campaigns."
With polls showing the race in a statistical dead heat by mid-October, Republicans in both Frankfort and Washington began to worry. President Bush made two trips to Kentucky in the campaign's final weeks, shattering state fundraising records and helping to buy a lot more ad time as the election went down to the wire.
In the end, however, ads proved less important than statistics. Rep. Fletcher insisted all along that the Bush tax cuts he'd voted for were helping to improve the economy, and with just a week to go before Election Day, he finally got the proof that he needed. With figures from the Commerce Department showing economic growth over the summer reaching a 20-year high of 7.2 percent, the Democrat's campaign all but collapsed.
Even before the first numbers came in, Rep. Fletcher was sounding confident. "The bottom line is [Chandler] attacked Bush and the economy, and I just don't think that played very well here in Kentucky," Rep. Fletcher told WORLD outside the library in Lexington where he cast his vote. "I think it worked against him. I think it was a very foolish move. He was used as a guinea pig for the DNC to test this message for the future. He gambled quite a bit with that message and [with] this growth of the GDP-7 percent, unprecedented-I think it backfired on him substantially."
If the Fletcher victory was the best news President Bush received on election night, it was hardly the only news. In Mississippi, Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, upset Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, the incumbent Democrat, by a margin of 8 percentage points. The election marked only the second time since Reconstruction that the GOP has captured the top job in Mississippi, and it came on a day with record turnout, weakening Democratic claims that Republicans can win only if most voters stay home.
Coming on the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California, Tuesday's races give the GOP a perfect record in gubernatorial contests this year. The next test will take place on Nov. 15, when Republican Bobby Jindal and Democrat Kathleen Blanco face each other in a runoff election in Louisiana. If Mr. Jindal prevails-and late polls show him with a 4-point lead among likely voters-the GOP will control every Deep South governorship from Texas to South Carolina and down into Florida.
With the Democrats in disarray across the South, the national party may be tempted to write off the region in next year's presidential contest, focusing scarce resources on more competitive regions like the Midwest. But that would likely drive down voter turnout among core Democratic constituencies, making it easier for Republicans to pick up open Senate seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
-with reporting from John Dawson in Kentucky