FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear predicted he would coast to re-election over two rivals Tuesday, confident of becoming the second Democrat to win a U.S. gubernatorial race this year despite lingering economic uncertainty that's already proving worrisome to President Barack Obama's 2012 effort.
In a conservative state where voters routinely elect Republicans in national races, Democrats have lost only two governor's races since 1950. Yet Beshear's chief rival, Republican state Senate President David Williams, vowed to score an upset despite the incumbent's hefty lead in recent polls.
Williams and independent Gatewood Galbraith, an attorney making his fifth run for governor, campaigned on claims that Beshear wasn't doing enough to create jobs in a state where one in 10 workers is unemployed.
Yet pre-election polls showed Beshear with a double-digit lead over Williams.
The incumbent has boasted about those poll numbers before the hundreds of supporters who have routinely flocked to his campaign stops across Kentucky. "I think the other side has been holding their rallies in phone booths," he joked recently before a crowd in Bowling Green as the campaign wound down.
Now, after months of political speeches, voters in Kentucky are having their say with 12 hours of balloting that opened at 6 a.m. Election observers expected light turnout in a non-presidential election year, with some projecting up to three-fourths of the state's registered voters might stay away.
In Louisville, Kentucky's largest city, chief election officer Bobbie Holsclaw said predictions of a low turnout appear to be accurate.
"It's steady, but a slow steady," she said Tuesday afternoon.
This and other gubernatorial races are seen as keys to gauging the political climate ahead of Obama's own re-election bid.
In Louisiana, GOP incumbent Gov. Bobby Jindal easily won re-election last month. Republicans are favored Tuesday in Mississippi, where Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the front-runner to succeed two-term Gov. Haley Barbour. Bryant faces Democrat Johnny DuPree, the first black candidate in modern times to win a major-party nod for Mississippi governor.
Beshear vowed he will join West Virginia's Early Ray Tomblin as the second Democrat to win a governor's race this year.
Tomblin won Oct. 4 in a special gubernatorial election after his Republican challenger sought to paint as a mandate on Obama's presidency.
In the Kentucky race, Williams also tried to make Obama a central figure.
Beshear has endorsed Obama for re-election while Williams blames the Democratic president for job-killing economic policies and for environmental policies that have harmed Kentucky's coal industry, which employs about 18,000 people. At campaign stops, Williams said Beshear has failed to set an agenda that puts people back to work, noting Kentucky has lost some 90,000 jobs since Beshear took office in 2007.
"He not only has a failed governorship over the past four years, he does not have an agenda for the next four years," Williams told supporters Saturday in Newport. "We cannot afford four more years of a do-nothing governor."
Beshear acknowledged that the economic gloom continues, but insisted that Kentucky is emerging from lean times much stronger than most other states.
Republican operative Larry Forgy, a Kentucky attorney, said the governor's race shouldn't be viewed as a harbinger for Obama.
"Steve Beshear will be up in the treetops screeching like a buzzard, but there's nothing unusual about a Democrat being elected governor in Kentucky," Forgy said, noting the state's historical record of siding with Democrats for the job.
Additionally, Beshear has raised more than $10 million, gaining a huge campaign-financing advantage from the get-go. Williams had banked about $2 million, and Galbraith less than $200,000, according to the last donor reports filed with election authorities.
Matt Colwell, a bank employee in Fort Thomas and stalwart Republican, said he's voted for a Democrat only twice in his life, both times for Beshear for governor.
"I just don't like David Williams," Colwell said. " ... He seems like an old-school, mean Republican. My mind was made up the moment he was nominated."
Truck driver Rollie Hubbard said he didn't allow Williams' sometimes prickly disposition stop him from voting a straight Republican ticket Tuesday.
"I don't much care for Williams, but maybe he can do a bit of a better job than Beshear," Hubbard said. " ... I don't think Beshear's done a whole hell of a lot. He hasn't brought jobs to Kentucky — he's lost them."