Kentucky political races court the basketball vote

Updated: October 28, 2003, 9:05 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In Kentucky, where basketball reigns, politicians are courting voters by playing on their passion for the sport.

Both candidates for governor have recruited past players or coaches from the University of Kentucky, which has won seven national titles. And the former Wildcats have barnstormed the state for their candidates.

Even former coach Rick Pitino -- now with the University of Louisville -- has been in on the act, attending fund-raisers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Chandler and Republican Richie Farmer, a former Wildcat running for agriculture commissioner.

The basketball angle is most obvious in Farmer's race against Democrat Alice Baesler, whose husband, Scotty, was a Wildcat team captain for Adolph Rupp in the early 1960s and was later elected mayor of Lexington, then a congressman.

Farmer himself played on a Kentucky team of beloved overachievers who lost in overtime to Duke in a 1992 NCAA tournament game considered one of the best college games ever. His campaign signs show a basketball and a hoop.

Steve Robertson, campaign director for the state GOP, said Farmer has been approached by many people on the campaign trail who thank him for the enjoyment he gave them while wearing the Kentucky jersey.

Alice Baesler said Farmer "is a nice guy and was a good ballplayer but really does not know a whole lot about agriculture."

"As I try to tell a lot of people, this isn't a basketball game," she said.

Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University, said the basketball connection could mobilize voters and increase turnout.

"To the extent that it gets people involved that normally wouldn't be involved, I think this is something that is beneficial to democracy," he said.

In the Nov. 4 governor's race, Chandler has attracted such basketball figures as Joe B. Hall, the coach who led the Wildcats to the 1978 national championship. In one of his TV commercials, Chandler, the state attorney general, sinks a jump shot to make the point that he is a "straight shooter."

Chandler's Republican opponent, Rep. Ernie Fletcher, has former Wildcat J.P. Blevins, a sharpshooting guard, on his campaign team.

And what if the governor's race came down to a game of one-on-one?

Chandler boasted he could beat Fletcher with ease: "I've got several inches on him. I can take him inside."

This story is from's automated news wire. Wire index