By Hastings Wyman –
The most closely watched gubernatorial race this year is in Kentucky, where the GOP is trying to win back the governor’s mansion after eight years of Democratic occupancy. The Democratic nominee is state Attorney General Jack Conway, who easily won the nomination over token opposition. The Republican nominee, industrialist Matt Bevin, won a hotly contested primary by an 83-vote margin, with 32.9% of the vote to Agriculture James Comer’s 32.9%. Comer and former Louisville city councilman Hal Heiner, who came in third, have endorsed Bevin.
There’s been some television and personal politicking, but mainly the political folks are lying low during the summer. In Kentucky, says Lowell Reese, editor and publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, “the political scene kicks off at the annual Fancy Farm picnic [on August 1] … People are on vacation now, the legislature has gone home.” Then, “There’s a mad rush after Labor Day.”
The only post-primary poll taken so far was by Public Policy Polling (PPP) (D) in mid-June. Bevin led with 38% to 35% for Conway, with 6% for potential independent Drew Curtis. The high percentage of undecided voters – 20% – reflected voter ignorance about both candidates. Conway has been the state’s attorney general for nearly eight years, but a surprising 35% have no opinion of him; 34% view him unfavorably and 31% favorable.
Similarly, voters show no enthusiasm for Bevin. Some 40% have no opinion of him, despite his primary victory in May and his losing race for the US Senate last year; 31% view him favorably and 28% unfavorably.
Al Cross, a political journalist with decades of experience covering Bluegrass State politics, says “You have two nominees for governor who are clearly not up to the task … Conway is not a very good politician, but he’s a good public servant and imminently more qualified to be governor” than Bevin. He adds that Conway “always looks like he’s trying to be someone he isn’t.”
Bevin, says Cross, is “an arrogant jerk,” who easily alienates people. He won the Republican Primary “because the two leading candidates got in a pissing contest … [Bevin] has been unable to organize the campaign within his own party.”
The joker in the race is Curtis, a humorist best known for his website, www.FARK.com. He hasn’t yet filed the 5,000 signatures he needs to run as an independent, but probably will. Whether he would hurt Bevin or Conway more isn’t clear. But one result of his candidacy could well be that the next governor will be elected with less than a majority.
Conway has been on television, with a positive ad. There’s also a Democratic ad on the internet that “is an echo chamber of what McConnell said about Bevin last year,” notes longtime Democratic consultant Dale Emmons. Bevin has not aired TV spots, but the Republican Governors Association has sponsored ads that associate Conway with coal emissions policy and Obamacare.
While the state has been trending sharply red in recent years, local political establishments have remained blue. Reese notes that “68% of the courthouse people in the 120 counties are Democrats.”
Although Republicans led in the down-ballot contests in the PPP survey, state races tend to be purple. “Conway watches that color,” opines Reese “He’s left of center, but closer to the purple than Bevin, who is red all the way through. If he continues to project himself as red, he’ll lose.”
Another uncertain factor is Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader easily (60% to 35%) defeated Bevin’s challenge from the right in the 2014 Republican Primary, but afterwards, Bevin declined to endorse McConnell and McConnell’s endorsement of Bevin in this race was particularly bloodless: “I congratulate Matt Bevin on his victory and endorse him for governor.” Period. End of comment.
Says Reese, “If McConnell is serious about electing Bevin, it will be a big help. If he drags his feet, and his people do too, it will hurt Bevin.” Adds Emmons, “The Democratic Party is united by its candidates for governor and other statewide candidates. The Republicans are still stinging from a nasty primary. Bevin hasn’t reached out to all Republicans. There are still some wounds.”
On issues, the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare would be costly, and Bevin may gain on that issue. He’s also taken a more conservative stance on gay marriage, advocating getting the state out of the business of issuing marriage licenses altogether, a libertarian approach supported by US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Conway, while not endorsing the Court’s decision, said the state “must uphold the new law and find a way to process and recognize same-sex marriage.” The Democratic Party has blasted Bevin for owing property taxes on a business he owns in Maine.
In sum, “I don’t think anybody could say it’s going one way or another right now,” says Reese. “It’s going to be a close election,” forecasts Emmons. And Cross predicts “a likely low turnout with not much excitement.” Stay tuned.