By Hastings Wyman –
In Kentucky’s May 19 Republican gubernatorial primary, Tea Party-backed industrialist Matt Bevin came in first with 70,479 votes (32.9%), followed by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer with 70,396 (32.9%). Former Louisville City Councilman Hal Heiner was third with 57,948 (27.1%) and former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott was last, with 15,364 (7.2%).
Since there is no runoff in the Bluegrass State, Bevin’s 83-vote lead makes him the winner, assuming a recanvass doesn’t change the results. Al Cross, a veteran observer of Bluegrass politics, says the recanvass “won’t change anything, because the votes are electronically counted. Bevin is the nominee.”
In the Democratic Primary, state Attorney General Jack Conway easily won the nomination, with 140,627 votes (79%) to retired engineer Geoff Young’s 37,887 (21%).
In the closing weeks, the Republican campaign was roiled by allegations by a blogger that Comer, when in college, had abused his girlfriend and had taken her to Louisville for an abortion, allegations that Comer strongly denied. The campaign was roiled further when it was discovered that Scott Crosbie, husband of Heiner’s running mate KC Crosbie, was in communication with the blogger. Heiner denied any part in publicizing the scandal and exit polls showed most voters did not believe the accusations against Comer. The net result was that Heiner lost significant support, much of which went to Bevin, and Comer’s supporters in Western Kentucky were energized, though not enough to overtake Bevin.
The nomination of Bevin “turns the Republican Party of Kentucky on its head,” says Cross. Only last year, Bevin, with Tea Party support, ran against US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in the primary, garnering 35%. Bevin did not support McConnell’s reelection in the General Election. So Bevin’s nomination only a year later has “created a great deal of turmoil for the Republican establishment in Kentucky,” says longtime political consultant Dale Emmons (D).
But ironically, this year, “It’s easier for Bevin to unite the party, because there’s so much bad blood between Comer and Heiner,” says Cross.
Both Comer and Heiner have pledged to support Bevin in the General Election. McConnell has said he will support the party’s nominee, “and I expect he will,” says Cross, “but not work for him.” Says Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, “After the wounds get licked, McConnell will come around.”
Heiner, who had polled well before the vote, “got tangled up” in the abuse allegations against Comer, says experienced commentator Reese, and there was major mudslinging between the two. “Bevin stayed fairly clean on it.”
Comer was also hurt by attacks on his vote in 2005 of favor of legislation that allowed former lawmakers to base their legislators’ pension on any new job they take. Heiner’s superpac estimated that Comer would draw some $467,000 over a life time as a result of the law.
Had there not been those two bad stories, opines Reese, “Comer would have won by 10,000 votes.” He adds, “Bevin was the most articulate. He is a very good salesman … The candidates made lots of joint appearances and Bevin was the most impressive.” So in the last week, “the undecideds went to the clean and the articulate candidate,” who was Bevin. Says Emmons, “Bevin improved as the campaign went along; he became a credible messenger.”
The GOP, which has lost seven of the last eight gubernatorial races, hopes to win the governorship this year, then next year take control of the state House of Representatives. The Bluegrass Poll, taken by SurveyUSA a week before the primary, showed that Conway would lead Bevin by 11 points. Bevin may or may not get much bounce from his primary victory.
“The Democrats wanted to run against Bevin, because he’s Tea Party [and] has a reputation as far right,” says Reese. Bevin has urged repealing Kentucky’s health insurance exchange and is opposed to Common Core educational standards, among other conservative stances. “[B]ut that can’t get him elected in Kentucky,” Reese continues. “It’s red at the federal level, purple at the state level and the grass roots are blue… It may depend on McConnell, Rogers, Comer and Heiner coming together and putting pressure on Bevin to move to the center.”
Bevin’s nomination, says Emmons, has “given Conway a real opportunity to put it away.” He adds, “There’s a popular Democratic governor leaving office and a strong down-ballot ticket… It’ll be a good race, and I think Conway will win.” Says Cross, “Bevin can beat Conway, but Conway is the favorite.” Stay tuned.