By Nick Blazer, Manager, Social Media Services
If someone said the “trail to the Kentucky governor’s mansion includes skydiving” and a “comic book convention,” would you believe them?
In the first of this year’s blogs about the gubernatorial, attorneys general, legislative and local government elections in 2015 and 2016, I take a look at the Kentucky attorney general and gubernatorial races. Two open seats are at stake: Kentucky Democrats will defend against a Republican assault on their control of the state executive offices. The fight is set to a backdrop of Democratically-controlled state executive offices; as a reminder, aside from former Governor Ernie Fletcher’s (R) single term from 2003 to 2007, the last year Kentucky had a Republican governor in office was 1971. In addition, the legislature has been split for over a decade (the Republicans did not manage to flip the House in the midterm elections). Victory in the gubernatorial race will grant either the Republicans or the Democrats an advantage in successfully passing their party’s agenda goals.
Who is Running for Governor?
Governor Steve Beshear (D) is prevented from running for re-election to a third term due to term limits, prompting Attorney General Jack Conway (D) – who is also prevented from seeking re-election himself – to make a bid for governor and providing an opportunity for the Republican Party to complement their control of the Kentucky Senate.
The open seat race has attracted an assortment of Republicans seeking the party nomination. Matt Bevin, who challenged United States Senator Mitch McConnell (R) in the primary election last year, is making another run at the statewide elected office, taking advantage of the foundation he laid. He is joined by running mate Jenean Hampton (R). The pair officially entered the race in January and they unveiled the ticket’s platform in February. Will T. Scott (R), a former Kentucky Supreme Court Associate Justice, also joined the race in January after resigning his position. Menifee County Sheriff Rodney Coffey (R) is partnering with Scott as his potential lieutenant governor. James Comer (R), Kentucky’s Agricultural Commissioner, and Hal Heiner (R), a former member of the Louisville Metro Council, have been in the race for a longer duration. Heiner has been actively eyeing the seat since at least 2013 and he is using the outsider angle in his campaign. Heiner shares the ticket with K.C. Crosbie (R). Comer officially kicked off his campaign last September, although his office has given him exposure across Kentucky for the past few years. He was comfortably elected to his first term in 2011 by roughly 64% of the vote; prior to this, he was a state representative for twelve years. Comer is joined by State Senator Chris McDaniel (R) as candidate for lieutenant governor.
The race features two Democratic tickets. Attorney General Jack Conway and his running mate House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly (D) face nominal opposition from Geoff Young (D), a former congressional candidate running for governor, and his running mate Johnathan Masters (D). The race also features a unique independent ticket: Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com, and his wife Heather joined the race as a shared ticket. For anyone unaware, Fark is one of the original news aggregator websites from the 1990s.
Do you know what the top issue for Kentuckians is?
Raising the minimum wage.
Or is it?
Headlines reporting the results of the recent Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of The Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader, WHAS and WKYT, would have you believe this at first glance. However, this is a bit misleading: the 19% of respondents who claimed this as the most important issue to them also happened to be the largest block of respondents. The remaining four-fifths of respondents were split between at least eight other issues (11% of respondents are lumped into the category of “Other”). In addition, these results echo the results of Harper Polling’s January survey, where the single largest category of concern was the economy and jobs.
That said, the way Kentucky voters feel how these economic issues – namely right-to-work and minimum wage – should be resolved may surprise you. The Bluegrass Poll discovered 46% of respondents preferred letting local governments deal with right-to-work and minimum wage increases, versus 36% of respondents who preferred resolving the issues at the state level. While not definitive, this near-majority sentiment echoes recent activity at the local level, as The Courier-Journal observes:
“Both issues have come into play in recent months as the Louisville Metro Council has voted to increase the minimum wage in the state’s largest city and several counties around the state have voted in favor of laws that allow people to work in union businesses without paying union dues or representation fees.”
These are not the only issues Kentuckians feel should be handled at the local level. The Bluegrass Poll included a question about giving local governments the ability to put local option sales taxes on the ballot to fund local projects (a bill to amend the state constitution to do this was a top priority of House Democrats this session). Not only did a majority of respondents respond in favor of this proposal, it was consistent with the results from a 2013 version of the Bluegrass Poll.
What about the candidates?
The Republican candidates have a small problem: many of their policy positions are similar (which led them to focus on their backgrounds at the official commencement of the race, as WHAS11 observed in early February; the Cincinnati Enquirer also noted this in a recent forum). For instance, Bevin, Comer and Heiner are for passing right-to-work legislation; are pro-coal (as is Jack Conway); are against the Common Core education standards (either in spirit or in name); are for giving parents education choices at the local level; and want to cut taxes and reform the tax code. Yet there are differences about their proposed solutions listed on their campaign websites, which can be accessed below.
On the Democratic front, Jack Conway plans to invest in early education; intends to restore K-12 funding; make higher education affordable; and invest in infrastructure, including broadband.
For more information about the candidates on the issues:
Will Scott: On the Issues
Jack Conway: Record
According to the early March Bluegrass Poll, Hal Heiner appears to be the Republican frontrunner, and if a late March survey conducted by Triumph Campaigns is accurate, he has solidified his lead. In early March he held an eight-point lead over competitors James Comer and Matt Bevin and a much larger lead over Will Scott. The distance of the lead was questionable at the time, as the margin of error for the sample of likely Republican primary voters was +/- 4.4%; and yet it was a significant departure from a late January survey conducted by Remington Research Group, which observed no clear frontrunner and a substantial amount of undecided respondents. Now, Hal Heiner’s campaign looks to have developed momentum, as the results of the Triumph poll reported a fourteen-point lead over Comer and a 21-point lead over Bevin, with a margin of error for the poll of +/- 4%.
The apparent spike in support for Hal Heiner is likely attributable to his television advertisements. Heiner has sunk more than $1 million in airwave buys over more than eight weeks to boost his name recognition outside of the Louisville Metro area. Observers from last year’s 36 gubernatorial contests may recognize parallels with then-candidate Tom Wolf’s (D) successful campaign. Wolf’s self-funded efforts to project his name and gain support through a steady stream of television ads led to an early March lead against his Democratic rivals which carried through the primary election. Also bearing a similarity to the then-state of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, James Comer is the only other Republican to air television advertisements in the race and he has spent a much lower figure on ads. However, a similar primary outcome is far from guaranteed: Comer is making a renewed fundraising effort to fight fire with fire and allegedly plans to “‘own the TV airwaves’ in the last two months of the campaign.”
While behind in the race to dominate the airwaves, Comer has a different edge against Heiner, Bevin and Scott. He has received endorsements from current and past members of Congress. Last September, former United States Representative Anne Northup (R) backed Comer; United States Representative Ed Whitfield (R) endorsed Comer in October; then in December, United States Representative Thomas Massie (R) voiced his support for the campaign; and in January, former United States Senator Jim Bunning (R) added his name to the list of endorsements.
Whoever wins the nomination May 19 will inevitably face Attorney General Jack Conway, who is the presumed Democratic nominee. And, while Conway has an easy primary race, he does not have such easy odds in the general election. At the moment, Conway debatably leads by a small margin in the polls. Taking the January filing deadline into consideration, there are three polls to draw data from about general election face-offs (Public Policy Polling also conducted a poll last August, which is included in the graphs above as well). Gravis Marketing and RunSwitch/Harper Polling surveyed the race in January, while the aforementioned Bluegrass Poll captured information about the race in early March. Among the three, Jack Conway polled with consistent support in the low-to-mid 40% range and pulled slightly ahead of Heiner and Comer between January and March. It must be noted that the Bluegrass Poll has a +/- 2.3% margin of error for the general election races, so Conway could be tied with Heiner and Comer.
On the fundraising front, Hal Heiner entered 2015 with the largest amount of cash on hand. However, the sizable amount of his campaign funds is due to self-funding. James Comer actually raised the most in donor contributions for the reporting period. Will Scott and Matt Bevin did not file campaign finance reports as they joined the race in January.
Finally, cn|2 will host a debate between the Republican candidates April 21 and Western Kentucky University will host a debate between the Republican candidates April 28.
- (1/23/15) The Courier-Journal: Sparks fly at governor candidate forum
- (2/2/15) The Courier-Journal: Jack Conway gets pass in Democratic primary
- (2/3/15) WHAS11 ABC: GOP governor candidates focus on background in crowded field
- (2/10/15) The Courier-Journal: KY Democrats rally early behind Jack Conway
- (2/28/15) The Courier-Journal: 2016 looms but Governor’s race is at hand
- (3/2/15) cn|2: GOP gubernatorial candidates talk pensions, taxing at N. Ky. Lincoln Day Dinner
- (3/3/15) The Courier-Journal: Meet the jockeys riding Ky.’s GOP tickets for governor
- (3/4/15) WKMS: Republican Candidates for Statewide Offices to Make Their Case in Murray Next Weekend
- (3/6/15) WKMS: GOP Gov Candidates Want Kentucky To Be Like Texas
- (3/8/15) Bowling Green Daily News: Governor candidates attend Lincoln Day Dinner
- (3/10/15) WKYT: Bluegrass Poll: Minimum wage top issue in governor’s race
- (3/14/15) Lexington Herald-Leader: After tough winter, James Comer hopes spring brings better news in race for governor
- (3/17/15) WKMS: Comer Focused on Western Kentucky Ahead Of Republican Gubernatorial Primary
- (3/22/15) The Courier-Journal: Heiner presses Comer in GOP race for governor
- (3/24/15) The Courier-Journal: What to watch for in Ky.’s GOP primary for governor
- (3/26/16) WHAS11: Ky Governor’s race: Heiner expands lead in Republican poll
- (3/27/15) WBKO: GOP Race for Governor Heads to Northern Kentucky
- (3/27/15) Bowling Green Daily News: In northern Kentucky, tolls confront GOP governor candidates
- (3/29/15) Lexington Herald-Leader: In low-turnout election, Republican candidates in Kentucky see young voters as secret weapon
- (3/29/15) National Journal: Matt Bevin Struggles to Stand Out Without Mitch McConnell as Foil
- (3/29/15) Cincinatti Enquirer: Styles contrast at GOP governor forum
- (3/30/15) Lexington Herald-Leader: Comer breaks with field on ‘Obamacare,’ unveils plan to live with ‘rule of law’
Who is Running for Attorney General?
As noted above, Attorney General Jack Conway, who is running for governor, is prevented from running for a third term due to term limits. Andrew Beshear (D), the son of Governor Beshear, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Two Republicans are seeking the party’s nomination – Michael Hogan (R), a Lawrence County Attorney, and Whitney Westerfield (R), a State Senator representing District 3.
There is little data at the moment about the attorney general contest. While the Bluegrass Poll did not include a question about the general or primary elections, the aforementioned Triumph Campaigns survey asked its respondents about the Republican primary. By-and-large, Republican voters do not appear to know enough information about Hogan and Westerfield to make a decision – nearly 61% were undecided, although Hogan held a seven-point advantage in the poll with a margin of error of +/- 4%.
For what it’s worth, Gravis Marketing in early January pitted Beshear against Luke Morgan (R), a Lexington-based attorney who did not enter into the contest. The survey reported 42% of respondents favored Beshear against 37% for Morgan and nearly a quarter (22%) were undecided.
Beshear is the only candidate with campaign finance reports, as Westerfield and Hogan did not enter the race until this past January.
Finally, Michael Hogan and Whitney Westerfield will appear on Kentucky Tonight, a program of Kentucky Education Television, April 20 to discuss the race.
- (11/14/13) WKMS: Andy Beshear Announces Bid for Kentucky Attorney General
- (1/8/15) WKMS: Hopkinsville’s Whitney Westerfield May Run for Attorney General
- (1/9/15) WKMS: Whitney Westerfield Announces Bid for Kentucky Attorney General
- (1/12/15) The Independent: Louisa attorney enters race for Attorney General
- (1/16/15) CN2: Lawrence County Attorney Mike Hogan running for Attny. Gen. to increase county and commonwealth attorney budgets
- (1/19/15) WYMT: GOP Lawrence County attorney discusses Attorney General bid
- (2/19/15) CN2: Sen. Whitney Westerfield wants to go after Obama’s federal policies if elected AG
- (3/5/15) The Courier-Journal: Questions stump AG candidate on Senate floor
- (3/14/15) Murray Ledger & Times: AG candidate Beshear makes Murray stop
- (3/16/15) Kentucky New Era: Lawmaker, prosecutor join Westerfield’s run for AG
- (3/23/15) Kentucky New Era: Local senator goes to bat for right-to-work
One Final Note: Voter Turnout
On a final note, voter turnout will be the final determining factor in the election and, just like last year’s elections, could be the wildcard element (note: last year’s national voter turnout hit a 72-year low). While the turnout of previous elections is by no means a guaranteed indicator of future elections, it does provide a useful baseline estimate and insight into the potential partisan makeup of the electorate. According to the state-estimated numbers of registered voters and voter turnout for election years listed below, the Kentucky Democratic Party has a clear numerical advantage. That said, cross-party voting for statewide candidates should not be underestimated: current gubernatorial candidate James Comer received 64% of the vote in 2011; and at the federal level, a majority of Kentucky voters cast votes for presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) in 2012 and United States Senator Mitch McConnell (R) in 2014.
Will Kentucky Democrats maintain their hold on the state executive offices? Only time will tell.
Kentucky will hold its primary elections May 19.