As it now stands, Senate President David Williams of Burkesville will win the Republican nomination for governor in May and try to prevent Gov. Steve Beshear from winning a second term in November. Although — as Rand Paul proved in 2010 — the political winds can change rapidly in Kentucky politics, both Beshear and Williams enter 2011 as the leaders of their parties in state government.
But that was not always the case. At one point, the political careers of both Beshear and Williams were going nowhere and the fact that both have recovered from earlier political defeats and become the most powerful political leaders in Frankfort should provide hope for other once promising candidates who have suffered political losses — Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Secretary of State Trey Grayson come immediately to mind — that they still may have futures in state politics.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Steve Beshear seemed on the fast track that ultimately lead him to the governor’s mansion. After being elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1974, Behear was elected attorney general in 1979 and lieutenant governor in 1983. But his promising political career hit a brick wall in 1987 when he finished behind political outsider Wallace Wilkinson and former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. in a five-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Instead of becoming the political leader in Frankfort, Beshear returned to practice law (quite successfully, by the way ), and except for an ill-advised race against Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1996, he was not active in state politics until running for governor in 2007.
Ironically, while Wilkinson used his support for a state lottery to sail past both Brown and Beshear in the 1987 primary, Beshear used his support for expanded gambling to revive his political career four yeas ago. However, while Wilkinson used his victory to convince the General Assembly to place the lottery amendment on the ballot, Beshear has failed to do that with an amendment to allow expanded gambling.
Since Republicans seized control of the Kentucky Senate in 2000, Williams has been one of the most powerful politicians in Frankfort, someone who is loved by Republicans and hated by Democrats. But Williams’ current race for governor is not the fist time his name has appeared on the ballot in all 120 counties. In 1992, Williams won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, earning him the right to take on one of the most popular figures in Kentucky politics, Wendell Ford.
From the start, it was hopeless race. For one thing, Ford was so popular that there was not a single peron in the state who could have defeated him. But beyond that, Williams did not even have the support of the state Republican leadership. Williams’ vote for the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act had earned him the wrath of Republicans throughout the state, including most of his GOP colleagues in the Senate. As a result, Williams was ignored by the leaders of the Kentucky Republican Party as he challenged Ford.
However, instead of slipping quietly into political obscurity, Williams used his loss to Ford to begin his climb in Kentucky politics. Just eight years later he became the leader of the Republican Party in Frankfort. That in turn has made him a favorite to win the party’s nod for governor.
We mention all this only to show how voters in Kentucky are forgiving and maybe even a bit fickle. They don’t hold grudges an a loss here and there does not always mark the end of one’s political career. Just ask Steve Beshear and David Williams.