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KY Governor's Race Poses Eternal Question: Can a Father-in-Law Love Too Much?

Posted: 10/23/11 03:53 PM ET

As the proud papa of two extraordinary teenage girls, I know that there is nothing more unshakable, pure, and enduring than a father's love for his daughter.  Where that unqualified adoration extends to her husband as well, I imagine that such a family is truly blessed.

But as the Kentucky governor's race approaches its inexorable denouement this November, it seems apparent that a father-in-law can love a bit too much.

The father-in-law at issue is Terry Stephens, a highly successful businessman in rural southern Kentucky.  And his son-in-law, Kentucky Senate President and GOP gubernatorial nominee David Williams, is having a very, very bad year.

Indeed, during the first decade of the new millennium, David Williams was the most powerful and influential figure in the Kentucky Capitol.  While never offering a discernible policy agenda of his own, Williams was a master of statehouse politics, successfully thwarting the grand legislative ambitions of three consecutive governors, of both parties.

Williams, however, failed to comprehend that his insider influence would not necessarily translate into statewide electoral success. And after eking out a GOP primary victory against two dramatically underfunded opponents, his general election bid -- marred by a Keystone-Cops, revolving-door campaign team and the seemingly weekly release of new allegations about the misuse of taxpayer funds by Williams and his running-mate -- has been nothing short of a disaster.  The most recent polls show Williams running around 30 points behind the incumbent Governor, Steve Beshear. Even Trey Grayson, the former GOP Secretary of State and current Director of Harvard's Institute of Politics -- and, like Williams, a protegée of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell -- has publicly declared the race over, predicting an electoral "blowout."

Perhaps Williams' overwhelming popular rebuke can be attributed to the recent media exposure of the many hypocrisies of his candidacy and career:  The steadfast opponent of expanded gaming who incurred tens of thousands of dollars in losses at riverboat casinos in neighboring states.  The leading advocate of cutting public pensions who has voted to double his own legislative pension while in office. The self-defined fiscal conservative (proclaiming, a la JFK in Berlin, "I am a Tea Partier") who has emerged as the very symbol of government waste by spending more than $50,000 to renovate his Senate office with items such as a big-screen, plasma TV.

But the most popular theory blames Williams' precipitous decline on the Senate President's dislikable personality.  While for years in Frankfort circles and on editorial pages, Williams has been widely and consistently portrayed as a "bully," it was only through the spotlight of a statewide campaign that many of Williams' critics have felt empowered to come forward and give public testimony.  (In one powerful example, state Senator Tim Shaughnessy, who described himself as once close to Williams, declared: "He is just not a very nice person.")  Even Williams himself admits that his disesteemed personal image has damaged  his candidacy.

Still, to Williams' credit, those closest around seem to really love him.  His wife, Robyn, has forcefully defended her husband against political attacks, and her beautiful visage graces much of Williams' campaign communication.

And Robyn's father, Terry Stephens, has been -- by leaps and bounds -- Williams' largest financial supporter.  Stephens gave the Williams campaign the maximum financial contribution provided under state law, and then held a fundraiser at his home that generated around $50,000 in contributions.  In June, Stephens contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors' Association, which in July ran about $1 million of television ads supporting Williams' candidacy.

And just this past week, under pressure from a court order that had prohibited broadcasters from running a series of anti-Beshear ads paid for by a newly-created political advocacy group, Restoring America, Terry Stephens revealed that he was Restoring America's sole donor, to the tune of $1.3 million.

Stephens' love for his son-in-law must be deep and abiding, because the latter contribution carries significant risk, with little reward.

Little reward, because recent polling demonstrates that none of these third-party ads have done anything to shrink the overwhelming lead held by the incumbent Beshear. (Indeed, some political insiders suspect the latest ad campaign is really directed at the 22 GOP state senators who will determine in January whether Williams stays as Senate President.  However, it is hard to imagine that even a significant narrowing of Beshear's lead would make any difference in the minds of GOP Senators: Too many other factors come into play in insider politics.)

These contributions also carry significant risk, because the shady transactions have opened up the Williams campaign and family to Democratic charges of "illegal collusion" and an "illegal attempt to influence the election."  As State Democratic Chairman Dan Logsdon suggested, "Now we know why they set up shell committees, laundered money and fought restraining orders. It's become clear that Williams and his father-in-law wanted to avoid Kentucky's campaign finance laws and hide their scheme to funnel money into the support of Williams' campaign."

As someone who despises the criminalization of politics, I'm hoping that the well-versed Williams family (David is a lawyer; Robyn, a former judge) was careful not to coordinate these contributions.

There's no better cautionary tale than that of former Missouri State Senator, Jeff Smith, who writes for my blog, The Recovering Politician.  An aggressive prosecutor discovered that Smith had prior knowledge of an independent expenditure effort (puny in comparison; it involved anonymous fliers that criticized an opponent's voting record), and after a coverup effort was captured on a wire worn by his best friend, Smith was sentenced to a year in federal prison. (Click the following links to read Smith's compelling tale and his recent exposé on prison sex that blew up the Internet.)

I can also sympathize because -- let's admit it -- I'm always struggling with the instinct to spoil my daughters too often.  The Williams family -- while a great model to shatter the stereotype of in-law dysfunction -- also offers an important lesson: You can love too much.

 

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RecoveringPol