Wives Emerge as Force in Governor's Race

Aug 25, 2011

The spouses of the leading candidates in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race are especially visible this election season.  Instead of standing in the background as their husbands campaign, First Lady Jane Beshear and Judge Robyn Williams travel the Commonwealth alone, talk policy and present their spouses in a more human light. 

Speaking to Republican women eating lunch at Lexington’s Spindletop Farm, Judge Robyn Williams describes her husband as a kind and gentle man.  It’s not an image generally assigned to the state senate president, who’s perceived by many as a tough talking political boss. Robyn Williams tells voters about her spouse’s softer side.

“I think if they took the time and they talked to him face-to-face that he can dispel some of that image that the newspapers and the liberals who haven’t had their way with him have tried so hard to create.  I think if they spent time with him they would love him just like people who do know him,” said Williams.

Having her husband the target of such personal criticism, Williams says, is “very difficult for a spouse.”  Judge Williams would much rather talk about policy….something she does fluently.

Also a policy wonk, First Lady Jane Beshear is expert at staying on message.  She comfortably explains her husband’s platform to both voters and lawmakers.  And even when filling in for her spouse at campaign events, the First Lady skillfully keeps Governor Steve Beshear in the spotlight.

“The demand on his time is just phenomenal and so I’m delighted when people will accept me as a surrogate, as a substitute. And, I enjoy doing that because I feel like Steve’s doing a good job and I want people to understand what his commitment is and continues to be for the Commonwealth,” said Beshear.

Spouses are almost always essential to successful gubernatorial campaigns…but not just for their political skills.  State historian James Klotter says some First Ladies brought important connections and campaign financing into a marriage.

“Robert Letcher, his 2nd wife was a sister of the chief justice. Governor Magoffin’s wife was a granddaughter of Isaac Shelby.  So, sometimes those connections helped you in politics in the 19th century and probably even more so, is that if you married well, that was the quickest way to get a lot of money,” said Klotter.

Over the last century, Klotter says the influence of spouses in gubernatorial politics has grown both behind the scenes and in public.

“I think the one that really changes the whole game in a sense is Phyllis George, John Y. Brown’s spouse, because they marry and almost immediately he is campaigning for governor.  And as he will tell you, and I’ve heard him say this, that often people turned out to see her more than him,” said Klotter.

The only man to play a supporting role was the husband of Governor Martha Layne Collins.  And Klotter says, he was no political asset.  Bill Collins was convicted and served time in a federal prison for influence peddling.

Watching this year’s campaign is Ryan Alessi, who’s a political analyst with the CN2 cable news channel.  Alessi says Kentucky hasn’t seen a political matchup like the one between Judge Robyn Williams and First Lady Jane Beshear in quite some time.  He says both women are focused, understand policy and can connect with voters.

“I think the thing that both these spouses have in common is that they come off as being very genuine, to some degree, more genuine than their husbands when making those very same points,” said Alessi.

And as the general election draws near, Ryan suspects Kentuckians will see even more of these two women.

“You know, I’m sure the campaigns don’t want to have the spouses eclipse the candidates, but, you know, these are two of the most compelling weapons, so to speak, that the campaigns have, so they could probably stand to use them even more,” said Alessi.

The third candidate in this year’s gubernatorial race is Independent Gatewood Galbraith. Galbraith is divorced with three daughters.  The woman who’s sharing his political burdens is running mate Dea Riley, who hopes to be Kentucky’s next lieutenant governor.