With U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler’s formal announcement that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2007, the Democratic Party probably has more candidates for governor, instead of one less.

If Chandler, who lost to Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2003, had run for governor, he would have been the heavy favorite to gain the party’s nomination in next May’s primary. In fact, a number of potential candidates for governor — among them Attorney General Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Brereton Jones — have been waiting for Chandler’s decision before making their own decisions to run. Both Stumbo and Jones had said they would not run if Chandler did.

Chandler’s decision to remain in Congress was not a surprise. He has made it clear in recent weeks that he enjoys life in Washington and would likely remain in Congress. Just weeks after Chandler became the first Democrat to lose a race for governor since Henry Ward in 1967, Chandler was elected to fill the Sixth District congressional seat Fletcher vacated to become governor. Since then, he has been easily re-elected twice, and his is now considered a “safe” seat.

While both are well known, Jones and Stumbo both have negatives that could hurt them in a gubernatorial race. While he did many good things as governor, Jones is best remembered for an ill-conceived health insurance reform plan that actually made it more difficult to obtain insurance in Kentucky. And many would see a race by Stumbo as evidence that Fletcher is right in calling Stumbo’s investigation of his hiring practices a political vendetta by an ambitious politician. The controversy over Stumbo’s support of a child he fathered also would haunt him.

As we see it, Chandler’s decision not to run makes the Democratic race for governor wide open, perhaps creating an opportunity for a lesser known candidate with new ideas to emerge with the nomination. That could be a plus for the party.

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