Religion Roils Races For Governor In Mississippi, Kentucky

Religion played a prominent role in some statewide elections last month.

In Kentucky, embattled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, trailing badly in the polls, tried desperately to rally conservative religious voters at the last minute. The day before the election, Fletcher, an ordained minister dogged by charges of ethics violations, ordered the Ten Commandments and other documents displayed in the rotunda of the state capitol building.

The issue of Commandments displays by government has been an ongoing controversy in Kentucky. A previous display was ruled unconstitutional, but Fletcher insisted this new one will pass muster.

A spokeswoman for Fletcher’s opponent, Steve Beshear, blasted Fletcher for pandering.

“He is pulling out all of the stops in an attempt to distract voters from four years of failed leadership and from the real issues of bringing honesty and integrity back to the people of Kentucky,” Vicki Glass told the Associated Press. “If Ernie Fletcher had been living by the Ten Commandments these last four years he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in today.”

At the same time, Republican Party officials blitzed voters with a last-minute round of automated phone calls asserting that Beshear is sympathetic to gay rights.

The calls featured a message from singer Pat Boone, who asserted that Beshear would support “every homosexual cause” if elected. During one stop late in the campaign, Robbie Rudolph, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, told a crowd, “Do you want a couple of San Francisco treats or do you want a governor?”

Political analyst Larry Sabato said Fletcher was desperately trying to rally his fundamentalist base.

“Fletcher’s only remaining hope is that somehow evangelicals come out in record numbers and that other people don’t,” Sabato told the Associated Press. “This is an attempt to pop off his base.”

Fletcher was indicted last year on charges that he rewarded fellow Republicans with government jobs, violating state hiring laws. Fourteen people were implicated in the scandal, and Fletcher pardoned them all.

In the end, Fletcher’s ethical problems were too much to overcome. Beshear won easily, 59 percent to 41 percent.

In Mississippi, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate tried a strategy more common among socially conservative Republicans: He laced his stump speeches with biblical references and promised to restore school prayer if elected.

John Arthur Eaves Jr., a 41-year-old attorney, told crowds he was running “to serve my creator.” He linked his policy proposals, such as health care and tax reform, to biblical passages and told voters he wants to teach creationism in public schools.

Eaves, a Baptist, also backed religious exercises in the schools, saying he looked forward to a “new day in Mississippi, where our children go to school with voluntary, student-led school prayers.”

During one debate, incumbent Haley Barbour grew weary of hearing Eaves quote scripture.

According to The New York Times, Barbour said, “My opponent loves to quote the Bible” and “I’ll spare you the sanctimony.” Barbour also said, “This campaign should be on public policy.”

On Election Day, Eaves’ religious stance was not enough to put him over the top. Barbour was easily reelected, 58 percent to 42 percent.