By Jack Brammer
FRANKFORT — With signs that Republican David Williams’ campaign for governor is struggling, Republicans — and even some Democrats — say he still can make the race competitive.
But national political expert Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics is about ready to call Williams’ campaign finished.
“We’re almost to Labor Day, and we haven’t seen anything to suggest that Williams can win this race,” Sabato said. “He would need something like lightning striking three times in the same place to win. Good luck with that.”
With less than three months to go before the Nov. 8 election, Williams trails Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear in fund-raising and by more than 20 percentage points in polls.
His campaign has gone through two managers, and he has adopted the unusual practice of a “campaign by committee” to guide him.
Williams also has not reaped the widespread support of the Tea Party movement supporters who propelled Bowling Green eye surgeon Rand Paul to victory in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
Williams’ campaign chairman, former state Adjutant General Donald Storm, said he thinks voters will “finally focus on the candidates and realize that if we are ever going to turn this state around, we have to have a governor who has a plan.”
Storm said in a recent interview that Williams has talked about tax reform, public pension problems and social issues, while Beshear has avoided candidate forums and has said little about the issues.
As far as the resources to get out Williams’ message, Storm, who is guiding Williams’ campaign with state Republican Party chairman Steve Robertson and consultant Scott Jennings, said the campaign is focused on “getting money. We’ve just got to hope and pray.”
In the latest campaign-finance reports, filed in June, Beshear had $2.7 million on hand and Williams less than $100,000.
The Williams campaign has had several major fund-raisers since then, including one Thursday night in Louisville with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Another one is planned in mid-September with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has garnered national attention because of his fights with unions.
Storm said the Williams campaign will get tougher.
That became apparent late last week, when Williams injected religion into the race by accusing Beshear of not speaking out about the end of public prayers at Bell County football games.
While Williams tries to rally the Christian right, Beshear also has been criticized by supporters of separation of church and state for allowing tax incentives for the Bible-themed Ark Park in Northern Kentucky and the implementation of “In God We Trust” license plates.
Storm also said the Williams campaign will tell voters that the state coal industry “will suffer” if President Obama sees Beshear re-elected.
Beshear has kept his distance from Obama, but Storm said that’s temporary. “Beshear will not float back to the left but will race back to the left if he gets another term,” Storm said.
Beshear campaign spokesman Matt Erwin said the Williams campaign’s comments are “a desperate and pathetic move by a campaign 25 points down in the polls by a 25-year career politician who is trying to hide his record of lavish spending and avoid talking about Gov. Beshear’s record of smaller government, job creation and balanced budgets.”
How tough a race can Williams, whose public likeability has been an issue in the race, run?
“He will be telling the truth,” Storm said. He also defended Williams’ use of a committee to run the campaign.
“I think we’re the best organized now than we’ve been since the primary election (in May),” Storm said.
State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the lack of a campaign manager for Williams is “much ado about nothing.”
“David Williams is the best political consultant I know,” Thayer said. “I’ve seen him running campaigns for Republican candidates for Senate, and he has done very well.”
But the University of Virginia’s Sabato said campaigns by committee usually don’t work.
“The only thing that could be worse for a candidate is for the spouse to manage the campaign,” he said.
Bill Cox, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1979, said Williams has a shot to win the race, but only if he makes some changes.
“Abraham Lincoln once said an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client. The same can be said for a candidate who manages his own campaign,” Cox said.
“It’s still not too late for him, but he’s got to take a different approach,” said Cox, who was a strong supporter for Beshear in the 1987 and 2007 races for governor.
First, Cox said, Williams should get a campaign manager whom he trusts and respects, and listen to him.
“I think the problem for Williams is that he totally misread Beshear’s level of support,” Cox said.
He said Williams should try to raise his “likeability” by explaining how he, as governor, would take care of children, the elderly, the sick and disenfranchised.
“David has not answered the question of why he wants to be governor, and he has not forced Beshear to answer that.”
Cox also said Williams needs to concentrate more on the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts in the western and southern parts of the state, “where conservative Democrats and Republicans live,” and “quit worrying about Louisville.”
Louisville businessman Bill Stone, a strong Republican and Williams supporter, said he agrees with Cox’s assessment about Louisville and Jefferson County.
Williams has to keep talking about the need for neighborhood schools in Louisville, but “he should not worry about the elite East End money in Jefferson County that is going with Beshear,” Stone said.
The two major-party candidates were asked at the state fair last week how their campaigns are faring.
“We feel very positive about it,” Williams said.
Beshear said he “feels good” about his campaign.
“The numbers are all looking great right now,” he said, adding that he and his running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, “are working like we’re 10 points behind, and that’s the way we’ll run every day until Nov. 8.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said it will be “an interesting fall.”
“We’re fortunate to have two guys like Steve Beshear and David Williams competing for the governor’s office. Both are obviously competent and qualified to serve.
“I think Gov. Beshear, however, has done a very good job managing our resources and deserves another term.”
Stumbo called the race “an uphill struggle” for Williams, who “would be better served running as what he really is — a sort of progressive conservative,” focusing on issues more than attacks.
A third candidate for governor, Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith, is running as an independent. He has raised little campaign funds.
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