Kentucky hosting hot governor’s race

Kentucky hosting hot governor’s race

By Hastings Wyman –

Kentucky holds a gubernatorial election this year. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) is term-limited and Republicans are hoping to win the governor’s office. The filing deadline passed on January 27. The GOP has a potentially rough four-man primary shaping up. The Democratic candidate, however, has only token opposition. The primary is on May 19. There is no runoff; the candidate with a plurality wins. The General Election is on November 3.

Four Republicans are vying for the nomination.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is a farmer, “a rural Kentucky kind of guy,” says Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, an asset in this state where rivalry between Louisville and the rest of the state can be intense. Before his election as Agriculture Commissioner, Comer served in the state House of Representatives for ten years. He has been campaigning for months and has garnered significant backing from some Tea Partiers. He is also a good fundraiser, having raised some $1.1 million, more than any other candidate.

Former Louisville city councilman Hal Heiner ran a strong but losing race (48%) for Metro-Louisville mayor in 2010 and should run well in the Louisville area, which accounts for some 35% of the Republicans in the state. He also has substantial support among prominent GOPers and has a good grassroots following. While his fundraising has lagged behind Comer’s, Heiner loaned his campaign $4 million and is the only candidate who has already run TV ads.

Matt Bevin, a wealthy, Tea Party-allied industrialist who mounted a rough-and-tumble primary challenge to US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) last year, is the wild card in the race. “You don’t know how much money he has and will be willing to spend, or what message he will use,” says longtime Kentucky political journalist Al Cross.  On the plus side, his supporters are highly motivated. On the downside, he angered many Republicans – including the politically powerful McConnell – by declining to endorse McConnell in the General Election.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott is not expected to spend at the same level as the other Republicans. However, he could affect the race, because he has the potential to win votes in Eastern Kentucky which might otherwise go to Comer. He favors expanding legal gambling in the state.

A late January poll of registered Republicans by Remington Research showed Comer leading with 22%, followed by Bevin with 19%, Heiner 18% and Scott 5%.

“Comer has the shortest odds, Democrat or Republican, to be the next governor,” opines Cross. But Reese notes that Comer “has been out there since September; I would have thought his numbers would be a little higher.”

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jack Conway has only token opposition from perennial candidate Geoffrey Young, who is expected to run in the single digits. Thus,

for the first time in decades, there will not be a seriously contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in a year where there’s no incumbent, one sign of the party’s decline in the Bluegrass State.

Dale Emmons, a long-time Democratic consultant, notes, however, that having a “shoo-in” primary was a major break for Conway. “The party establishment is falling in line and resources are falling in line. He needs that, because the state is sometimes red and sometimes purple, but never blue.” Emmons also notes that the Democrats “don’t have to beat down McConnell to elect a governor, so they have an easier path this year.”

In addition, Democrats are pleased with the strength of their ticket for the down-ballot statewide offices. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who ran a disappointing race (41%) against McConnell last year, sidestepped the governor’s race, endorsed Conway, and is seeking reelection.  And Andy Beshear, son of outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear, is running for attorney general.

On the downside, Conway “is not a natural campaigner,” says Cross. “He’s an urbane kind of guy,” though he adds, “He’s been a good attorney general.” He also has some political baggage. When a court overturned the Kentucky legislature’s ban on same-sex marriage, Conway declined to appeal the ruling, but Gov. Beshear, also a Democrat, over-ruled him. Kentucky’s appeal is now before the US Supreme Court; its decision could focus attention on Conway’s stance, which is not a popular one in the Bluegrass State. Conway lost a US Senate race to Rand Paul in 2010.

In early January, a Gravis Marketing survey showed Conway leading all of the major Republican contenders, by about 43% to 36%, but at this early stage, that probably reflects mostly name ID. In any case, it will be a hotly contested election. Stay tuned.