Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, appears to be comfortably ahead at the final turn of a gubernatorial race that on paper looks like he should have tripped coming out of the gate.
In a head-scratcher for opponents, polls show Beshear holding a double-digit lead over Republican challenger David Williams despite widespread unemployment in the Bluegrass State, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads targeting the Democrat.
Beshear on Tuesday is poised to become the second Democrat to win a U.S. governor's race this year. Earl Ray Tomblin won West Virginia's special election Oct. 4, narrowly avoiding what could have been an embarrassing loss for President Barack Obama, who was dragged into the race by Republican challenger Bill Maloney.
The GOP scored a victory in Louisiana last month when incumbent Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to a second term. Republicans are expected to score another win next month in Mississippi, where Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the front-runner in a race to succeed two-term Gov. Haley Barbour. Bryant faces Democrat Johnny DuPree, a mayor who is the first black candidate in modern times to win a major-party nod for Mississippi governor.
In Kentucky, conservative blogger Marcus Carey said Beshear's lead defies conventional wisdom, especially in a state where nearly one in 10 workers is unemployed and many Kentuckians blame Obama, the nation's top Democrat. A year ago, the tea party proved strong enough to elect eye doctor Rand Paul, son of presidential candidate Ron Paul, to the U.S. Senate despite his lack of previous political experience.
"There is so much blame being focused on Washington that Beshear kind of gets a pass from voters," Carey said. "They consider the culprits in Washington to be more directly at fault for unemployment than anything Steve Beshear has done."
Williams and independent candidate Gatewood Galbraith, a Lexington attorney, haven't been shy about reminding voters that Kentucky has lost some 90,000 jobs since Beshear took office in 2007. Also, declining revenue forced Beshear to slash $1 billion from the state budget, resulting in cuts to government services and unpaid furloughs for employees.
The governor did include himself and his executive staff in the furloughs, cutting his own salary 10 percent and selling surplus property, including old cars, trucks, even a couple of aging airplanes.
"The good news is the state is finally now turning around and this economy is beginning to climb," Beshear told supporters in Lexington. "And I'm looking forward to the next four years of building on that foundation."
Beshear, 67, was elected governor in 2007 on promises to bring strong moral values to state government. Democratic operative Danny Briscoe said Beshear has lived up to that promise.
"Beshear, in a really bad economy, hasn't been able to do a lot, but, on the other hand, there have been no major scandals," Briscoe said.
Williams, 58, has tried to portray Beshear as an Obama surrogate, a tactic that hasn't changed poll numbers substantially even though the president is unpopular in Kentucky.
Williams reminds voters at every campaign stop that Beshear has endorsed Obama for re-election. The Republican accuses the Obama administration of implementing environmental policies that have hurt Kentucky's coal industry, which employs about 18,000 people.
"That's the reason, governor, I wonder how in the world you can support Barack Obama, because he started the war on coal," Williams said during a televised debate this week. "He's against it, and you continue to support him anyway."
Williams also tried this week to whip up a Bible-Belt backlash against Beshear for participating in a Hindu-style ceremony last month on the site of an India-based company's proposed manufacturing plant. The Beshear campaign labeled the attack "pathetic and desperate."
Galbraith, 64, is hoping the bitter rivalry between Beshear and Williams will steer voters to him. In stump speeches, he laments the political gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in the state Capitol.
"They've had their horns locked up like two bull elk fighting for their territory while the business of the people lies dead in the dust," he said.
Briscoe said Beshear has benefited from the perceived brashness of Williams, a lawyer who survived a bruising primary fight in a race that included a tea party-backed candidate. It was revealed then that Williams, an anti-gambling lawmaker, once frequented casinos, a potential turnoff for conservative Christians.
Williams also has led the GOP-controlled state Senate for the past decade in battles with Democrats who have controlled the House and the governor's office.
"Because he has been at the head of a lot of major controversies, and has been just beat to death by the state's two major newspapers, all that took its toll," Briscoe said of Williams. "His negatives were very high, and Beshear really hasn't had to do a lot, because he's been ahead from day one."
Beshear also amassed a huge financial advantage. For the general election race, Beshear has raised $10 million, Williams about $2 million, and Galbraith less than $200,000.
A report filed last week with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance shows Beshear had raised more than $500,000 over a roughly two-week period. Williams had picked up just more than $50,000 over the same period.
Some outside political groups funded largely by Williams' father-in-law, Russell Springs businessman Terry Stephens, have gotten involved.
Stephens gave about $2.7 million to Restoring America, a Republican political group, and $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Both groups used the money to run ads targeting Beshear.
Kentucky Secretary of State Elaine Walker, the state's chief election officer, said as little as one-fourth of registered voters may end up going to the polls Tuesday.
So far, fewer than 10,000 people have voted early using absentee ballots, compared with the nearly 40,000 such ballots cast at this point in the 2007 governor's race.
Republican activist Larry Forgy said Williams, who has been hailed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a brilliant legislator, was the GOP's best hope to defeat Beshear.
"It doesn't look that good for him, but we ran the best we had," Forgy said.