Rundown of lackluster May Primary Election…Hogan in two way race for state AG
By James Pilcher
The Kentucky Enquirer
The old saying in Kentucky is that no one really focuses on the state’s primary elections until after the Kentucky Derby.
Well, just two days after American Pharoah strode into the winner’s circle and was draped with the roses, the garish allegations that one of the Republican candidates had abused his ex-girlfriend in college and helped her get an abortion certainly woke everyone up.
The story was made even more lurid by the counterclaims by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer that the campaign of rival Hal Heiner was behind the accusations and that she had been offered money to come forward – a claim for which he offered no proof.
Who cares about the Preakness? Time to pay attention here in Kentucky.
So with less than two weeks before the May 19 primary, here are seven key things to know outside of the more scurrilous stuff:
There are four declared candidates in the Republican race, while Attorney General Jack Conway faces minimal resistance in the Democratic primary.
The GOP candidates are:
• former Louisville city councilman Hal Heiner;
• Louisville area businessman Matt Bevin, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in last year’s primary;
• Agriculture Commissioner and former state legislator James Comer, who has tabbed a local state senator from Taylor Mill as his running mate;
• and former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott.
Who’s probably going to win?
When it comes to the Democratic primary, Conway appears to have it sewn up. He is facing token opposition from Geoff Young of Lexington, a former official in the state energy department who previously ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress and was a former member of the Green Party. Young on Monday sued in state court to get Conway’s name taken off the ballot, saying that the Democratic elite in the state had conspired to rig the primary.
A leader is harder to discern in the Republican race. A Bluegrass Poll in late March found then that Heiner was in the lead with 33 percent of likely Republican voters, followed by Comer with 19 percent and Bevin with 12 percent, with Scott tailing with just 3 percent. But 29 percent of voters were still undecided and the margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning the race may be tighter than initial indications. That undecided percentage was up from 25 percent just a few weeks prior, potentially indicating more people were on the fence.
Most of the GOP candidates agree on most major issues, including rolling back the state’s involvement with Medicaid and other tenets of Obamacare, banning tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge project and not allowing a statewide smoking ban. In fact, not much separates the Republican slate issue-wise, leaving it a choice between experiences and styles.
Perhaps that’s why the campaign has started to turn nasty in its final weeks as each candidate looks for any kind of differentiation.
Where goes NKY goes the election; GOP grows
Kentucky is a state that requires voters to be registered in a party to vote in the primary. In the last gubernatorial primary, only 13.3 percent of registered Republicans voted, which accounted for about 144,000 votes. There are currently about 1.24 million registered Republicans statewide. So if turnout figures hold to form this year, all a GOP candidate needs to garner would be about 42,000 votes to win a plurality if it is a close race between all four.
That’s doubly true in Northern Kentucky, where turnout was 9.3 percent in the 2011 GOP primary, or only about 11,100 votes in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties combined. Yet the area is considered a GOP bastion, with 135,000 total registered Republicans (up 14.6 percent since 2011 and nearly double since 1999), and where there are only two area Democratic members of the General Assembly out of more than 20 total.
In short, there are a lot of Republicans in our area, but they don’t vote very much in primaries. So a key will be whoever gets the vote out the most in Northern Kentucky.
Bevin and Heiner will look to split as many votes as they can in the Louisville area, while Comer will try to drum up support in Northern Kentucky with the help of running mate state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill. But Bevin also has a well-established presence here thanks to his previous campaign for U.S. Senate, when he fared well in the local region.
You look bigger on TV, right?
As important as Northern Kentucky’s GOP votes remain to the candidates, the region hasn’t seen nearly as many campaign ads as the rest of the state.
But there’s a reason for that. The region is part of the overall Cincinnati market, which is at least 30 percent more expensive than the rest of the state of Kentucky. That means most candidates have focused their ad spends elsewhere such as Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green.
Still, Bevin has been on the air locally since early April, while Heiner joined in with a buy across all four major TV stations locally earlier this month, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission.
And as much as he needs Northern Kentucky and has McDaniel in his camp, Comer has yet to throw any money into this market for TV advertising, although he has held several private fund-raisers in the area, including a well-attended brunch last Sunday.
In an interview late last week, Comer said his campaign was going to stick with its plan and its grassroots operation here and around Tompkinsville, and spend more of its marketing money in Louisville and the center of the state.
National attention? Not yet, but it’s coming
Whoever wins, the state is only one of three to hold a governor’s race in this off-election year. That means national attention with pundits across the country looking to see if Kentucky will be any kind of barometer heading into next year’s presidential cycle.
And considering most of the GOP candidates have said they would roll back state health care programs enacted under Obamacare while Conway says it would be “callous” to do so, the election could be seen as a litmus test of the country’s feelings about the controversial Affordable Care Act.
“This will garner significant national attention as one of only three gubernatorial races in country,” Conway said. “I know the respective governors’ associations will be directly involved. And it will be an important bellwether for the 2016 elections. We may not see it until the summer and fall, and what help or hindrance that will create still remains to be seen.”
The last GOP governor was Ernie Fletcher, who won in 2003 and only served one term. The last time a Republican was governor in Kentucky before that was in 1971, when Louie B. Nunn left office.
The deepest pockets award goes to …
The candidates have taken vastly different approaches to paying for their campaigns. Comer and Conway are relying almost exclusively on donations, with some support coming from political action/issues oriented nonprofit committees.
Comer drew the most donations from Northern Kentucky, while Conway also had some donations from both here and the Cincinnati area (he also pulled in the most money overall from out of state, according to the most recent campaign finance reports). Comer raised more than $92,000 from Northern Kentucky in the first quarter, nearly a tenth of his overall haul of more than $1 million.
Meanwhile, Bevin and Heiner have almost exclusively self-funded their efforts, using their own money to enable them to avoid the fundraising race and focus on campaigning. Heiner sunk $4.5 million of his own money into the campaign last summer, while Bevin put in $1.25 million into his late-starting campaign in April.
Scott has also self-funded his effort, but much more modestly, pulling in just over $200,000 in the first quarter, putting nearly half of that in himself.
Who’s helping from the outside?
At least Heiner and Comer have received extensive outside help. A pro-Heiner issues group called Citizens for a Sound Government aired several controversial attack ads earlier during the campaign. Since it is based in Denver, it’s fundraising totals were not immediately available.
Heiner opponents have also questioned how closely linked the campaign is with the issues group (any direct “coordination” is illegal under state law). One of the group’s spokesmen and consultants is Heiner’s former campaign manager.
Meanwhile, the pro-Comer group Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity (chaired by a Northern Kentucky resident) raised more than $750,000 in the quarter. The group spent nearly all of that on a pro-Comer positive ad campaign in Louisville. But again, some opponents questioned how much connection there was between the Comer campaign and the group – citing a campaign email from Comer that included the group’s leaders as one of hundreds of recipients.
What else is on the ballot?
Here is a look at the other down-ballot primaries being held on May 19 for statewide offices in Kentucky:
Andy Beshear, running unopposed. Son of current Gov. Steve Beshear and a lawyer in Louisville.
State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a major architect of the new heroin bill passed earlier this year.
Michael T. Hogan. Attorney from Louisa in Lawrence County.
Secretary of State
Incumbent Alison Lundergan Grimes. Running for re-election after losing for U.S. Senate last fall to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville.
Charles Lovett of Louisville. Formerly ran for Justice of the Peace in Louisville in 2010 but withdrew.
Stephen L. Knipper of Independence. Running unopposed. Former Erlanger city councilman.
Jean-Marie Lawson Spann of Union. Running unopposed. Moved to area in the last few years, with family farm roots in western Kentucky and works for a firm that markets Kentucky agricultural products abroad.
State Rep. Ryan Quarles, R-Georgetown. Family is originally from Northern Kentucky, and he holds several degrees and also involved in farming.
Richard Heath of Mayfield. Owns a building materials company in Mayfield, and owned his family’s farm previously.
Neville Blakemore, a businessman from Louisville who has unsuccessfully run for city council there.
State Rep. Jim Glenn, R-Owensboro.
Daniel B. Grossberg, a real estate agent from Louisville.
State Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Mt. Sterling.
State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro.
Allison Ball, an attorney from Prestonsburg.
State Rep. Kenneth Churchill Imes, R-Murray.
Jon Larson, former Judge-executive of Fayette County, and unsuccessfully ran for Congress.