(April 17, 2015) — May 19 is Primary Election Day in Kentucky. The big race on the ballot is the four-man battle among Matt Bevin, James Comer, Hal Heiner, and Will T. Scott for the Republican nomination for governor.
Two recent public polls have shown former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner in the lead, but one of those polls lacks credibility, especially among Republicans, based on its past performance. An earlier poll had Agriculture Commissioner Comer in front.
Polling is also problematic when probably no more than 20 percent of Kentucky’s 1,233,085 registered Republicans will actually vote in the primary. It is clearly a close race and the polls show plenty of undecided voters.
Heiner has campaigned hard and long. The earnest Louisvillian is getting a surprisingly good reception around the state. He has also invested at least $4.2 million of his own money, which helps.
His television ads are high quality and feature forceful, easy to remember descriptors like “true conservative,” “Frankfort outsider,” and “job creator.” Heiner’s claim that he is “not a politician” is questionable, however, given his tenure in Louisville’s city legislature and a losing mayoral bid.
Outside money is funding ads that attack Heiner’s top two opponents. When asked recently to repudiate those negative ads Heiner coyly declined.
It infuriates liberal media when conservatives like the Koch brothers get involved in campaigns as they are for Heiner. How dare those private citizens use their own resources to compete with the privileged press in trying to influence elections!
Some Kentucky Republicans also complain that these groups are out of place in a state race. For now, though, they are a fact of life and candidates have to handle the campaign finance landscape as it is.
Heiner’s platform is short on numbers and specifics, especially when it comes to big issues like Medicaid, pensions, and tax reform. But let’s face it, folks, this race is not going to be won or lost on issues or policy, but on money, advertising, organization, and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Plenty of Kentucky Republicans still consider Comer to be the frontrunner. Others suggest that he may even be behind Matt Bevin.
The conventional wisdom is that Comer has higher name recognition than Heiner, a broad base of grassroots and local organization support, and a more impressive list of endorsements from the GOP establishment. He has also had to deal with some staff turnover and other sorts of backroom, behind-the-scenes stuff, but matching Heiner’s budget is his biggest challenge.
Comer put out a pretty good platform on the issue of healthcare, and is issuing one on education, but voters are still awaiting follow-up position papers on other issues. There is not much time to release, explain, and tout what the Comer campaign evidently sees as its edge on policy substance and specifics.
Having allowed Heiner to occupy the field for quite a while, Comer is now a consistent presence on television. One ad emphasizes his efficient operation of the agriculture post he now occupies, and another pledges his opposition to several of President Barack Obama’s policies that are unpopular in Kentucky.
Comer’s spots are visually appealing, but lack the crisp clarity and hard-hitting impact of Heiner’s. When a candidate is running fewer ads than an opponent in a campaign they had better be better ones.
There is some outside money for Comer, too. He is not hesitant to attack Heiner when the two appear on panels together, but the real question is when he or his supporters will turn up the heat with negative ads. Surely it will be soon.
Many believe Bevin, who hovers in a respectable polling position, is taking votes from Comer. Bevin’s image took a beating as he lost badly to McConnell in last year’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, but he emerged with good name-recognition and decent favorability numbers nonetheless.
Having ungraciously and unwisely declined to explicitly endorse McConnell in the general election, Bevin is anathema among some Republican regulars. But he has some support among the tea party types and is doing some advertising.
One of his radio ads features a character expressing surprise that, “Matt Bevin is running for governor?” That is not a good sign so close to the election and barring a big move Bevin looks more like a spoiler than a credible contender.
Will T. Scott left a seat on the state Supreme Court to run for governor and is waging a positive campaign with some genuine ideas, but polls put him far behind the others. Scott’s decision did not help the larger conservative cause since Governor Beshear appointed David Barber, an advisor to Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, to replace him on the high court.
For some reason this campaign has not yet caught fire. Most recently, basketball fever and the launch of Kentucky Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign have overshadowed it.
It is time for the race to really heat up. Expect a hotly contested sprint to the finish for the privilege of facing the very beatable Democrat, Attorney General Jack Conway, come fall.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.