Kentucky, Mississippi Elect Governors

In Kentucky, Democrat Steve Beshear easily bested Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose lone term was dogged by a hiring scandal. In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, one of the few politicians to come out of Hurricane Katrina looking good, handily won a second term.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Yesterday, state and local elections may offer some clues to what voters are thinking, one year ahead of the presidential elections, some clues. But they are elections unto themselves. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin has been following them.

Ken, good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by early. I appreciate it.

Let's start with what happened yesterday. What would you say the headline is?

RUDIN: Well, the big news, I guess, is the fact that the Democrats returned the favor of what the Republicans did last month. Republicans last month won the governorship of Louisiana with Bobby Jindal. Today, the Democrats unseated the Republican governor of Kentucky, and I guess that's the breaking rights they've gotten.

INSKEEP: And then there was an incumbent governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who keeps his job.

RUDIN: Yes, as a mater of fact, he's probably the only guy who came out of Hurricane Katrina with some kind of an enhanced reputation. President Bush obviously suffered politically for what he did or did not do with Katrina. Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco was so widely reviled for her performance in Katrina she didn't run for reelection. So - but Haley Barbour got some good reviews and trounce the underfinanced Democrat.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there are some clue there as to what voters are looking for. I mean, obviously, Haley Barbour is a conservative Republican in a very conservative state. He would have been heavily favored regardless but you seem to be suggesting that one message here is that voters will reward what they see as competence.

RUDIN: Well, if I can make up a phrase, all politics is local…

INSKEEP: That's brilliant.

RUDIN: I just came up with that.

INSKEEP: Oh, really, okay.

RUDIN: But actually it's exactly right because Governor Fletcher, who was the governor - Republican governor of Kentucky, was not seen as competent. He was under indictment early for rewarding his allies with political favors and patronage, and he suffered for it. Haley Barbour was aboveboard. He got there again. As I said, he did very well with Katrina relief, and he was rewarded with a second term for that.

INSKEEP: Which is not always the case, I mean, there are plenty of famous instances where mayors and governors who've been under investigation indicted seen as widely incompetent or irresponsible get reelected anyway because people support their ideologies, support their values or what they stand for. Voters seem to be in a different mood at the moment.

RUDIN: Well, I don't want to say that's - the outgoing mayor of Philadelphia was incompetent or what we're talking about. But John Street had been - his term limited, he's retiring this year, but he had been under criminal investigation - FBI investigation for years and yet was elected for two terms. His successor was elected yesterday, Michael Nutter, almost like a breath of fresh air in Philadelphia the fact that he fought crime and corruption, and he's going to be a new kind of mayor in Philadelphia.

INSKEEP: So a few clues to voter's mood at least at - in a few states right now at this moment in November of 2007. I do want to ask about one state that seems to be of greater and greater interest in presidential elections - Virginia, which was seen as safe Republican territory, as you know, for the longest time. But Senator George Allen lost his job there in 2006, a Republican senator, conservative senator who lost his job. They've elected a Democratic governor twice in a row and then there was more voting yesterday.

RUDIN: That's right and, of course, they're also looking to - when John Warner gives up his Senate seat next year. Mark Warner looks like may take it for the Democrats. But what happened…

INSKEEP: Same last name, different party.

RUDIN: Exactly. But what happened yesterday was that the Democrats needed four seats to take up wind control of the state Senate. They got the four seats they needed, and again, if people are looking to possible Democratic inroads in the South, they look at the state like Virginia who, as you say, has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for a long, long time. But on the state and local level they seemed to be doing very well.

INSKEEP: Is this purely a demographic change? This is a city that Washington, D.C.'s on the edge of it. There are a lot of immigrants, a lot of newcomers. Is that what's happening there?

RUDIN: Well, there's also a national mood against the Republicans, and we've seen that certainly coming out of the 2006 elections. The war remains extremely unpopular. President Bush remains extremely popular - unpopular. Now as we know next summer, there will be a new Republican presidential nominee and perhaps a new identity for the Republican Party. But right now their numbers are down and they're paying for it.

INSKEEP: So very gratefully, do Republicans feel like they have a fundamental problem in the South - their base?

RUDIN: No, actually that's probably the only place where they feel confident. They're nervous about everything else in the country.

INSKEEP: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR News political editor Ken Rudin.

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