On your mark, get set, go!

By Richard Nelson

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January 28, 2015

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Now that the filing deadline is over, the field is set and the sprint toward the May 19 primary finish line begins. Let's talk gubernatorial candidates. On the Democratic side, Jack Conway must be ecstatic that he hasn't drawn a strong challenge. Scratch that. His only other challenger Geoffry Young dropped out yesterday. But his joy doesn't necessarily translate into happiness among party loyalists who thought they needed a stronger candidate.  Attorney General Conway may be the most vulnerable democratic candidate for governor in decades. His failure to uphold and defend the state Constitution when it was being challenged in federal court will be a campaign issue. So is his reversal on the definition of marriage.  He's now in favor of gay marriage.  He is not known for strong retail political skills either. Democratic leaders say that absence of a primary has unified the party. The question is whether they've unified behind the right candidate.

Former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott's entrance into the race was as perplexing as his solution to the state pension fund crisis: expand casino style gambling. It's more than irony that a judge would favor expanding an activity that would land more people in front of his bench, but I digress. The Eastern Kentucky Judge is known as a conservative (minus his position on gambling) but has little name recognition across the rest of the state.  The question will be who he draws votes from. The fifth Congressional district is rich in GOP votes and his entry into the race makes it a  fiercer battleground for the top tier candidates.

Commissioner James Comer announced last fall that he will run for governor. Comer is a capable politician with the best name recognition of all four GOP candidates. He has strong retail campaigning ability and is a likeable guy. His broad base support from across the party spectrum, both rural and urban, young and old, makes Comer the candidate to beat. Did anybody see his  campaign burn up the social media feeds yesterday? Yet, social conservatives remain concerned about his board membership on the pro-casino organization Kentucky Wins! GOP Values Voters may be the deciding constitueny in this packed field and no candidate, however popular they may be, should take their vote for granted.

Former Louisville Councilman Hal Heiner has been aggressively campaigning since last year. His success in business and job creation distinguishes him from others in the field. Heiner nearly won the Louisville mayoral race a few years ago. Not bad for a true conservative. Heiner is running on issues of school choice and the economy and appears to be  the most socially conservative candidate in the field.  Heiner is known to run positive campaigns and refuses to sling mud against his opponents. Heiner may have difficulty distinguishing himself from the others in this race.  However, he did take the opportunity at a recent forum to say that "gambling was not" on his platform.  Comer and Heiner sparred over what may develop as a distinguishing issue.  


Matt Bevin lost last year's primary against Sen. Mitch McConnell, but he appears to have enough of the Tea Party base behind him to mount a reasonable challenge for governor. Polling in 2014 had Bevin ahead of other candidates speculating a possible run for governor, likely from his name recognition.  The question is: how much of his own money will he spend?  What issues will he run on? And of the two leaders–Heiner and Comer, who does he draw more votes from?

There's clearly a horse race on in the GOP primary which is news in and of itself. Four strong candidates are on the ballot. There was once a time when Democrats had the crowded field and Republicans could scarcely find credible candidates. Things have changed. The question now for the GOP is whether they can come together after the primary in what looks like to be a bruising ride.

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center