DYCHE | Get ready for interesting Kentucky Governor race
By John David Dyche
The race for governor will dominate Kentucky politics during 2015. It is already well underway, of course, but get ready for it to gear-up big time as the New Year begins.
There are two outstanding Republican candidates now in the race: James Comer of Tompkinsville, the state agriculture commissioner, and Hal Heiner, formerly a Louisville metro councilman.
There could soon be others, including Will T. Scott of Pikeville, now a state Supreme Court justice, and Matt Bevin of Louisville, who lost this year's U. S. Senate primary to Mitch McConnell.
The party would benefit from a positive campaign with several debates and lots of discussion of actual issues. It is unrealistic to expect candidates in such a high stakes race to completely forsake negative ads, but the public would respond well to a campaign conducted mainly on the high road.
Two issues should dominate the Republican discussion. First, who has the best chance of beating the likely Democratic nominee, state attorney general Jack Conway? Second, who has the vision, management ability, and political skill to succeed in bringing bold and much-needed reforms to Kentucky?
Comer and Heiner have been working incredibly hard for months. The conventional wisdom is that the battle between them pits Comer's strong statewide grass-roots organization and proven record as a vote-getter against Heiner's financial advantage and reputation as a smart, successful businessman from outside the Frankfort scene.
Some Republicans see Comer as more politics than policy, and Heiner as the reverse. In this and other respects, including their backgrounds and experience, they represent two of the major and more traditional strands of Kentucky Republicanism – the “old Fifth” congressional district kind versus the Louisville variety.
Bevin and Scott represent more populist strains. With his personal fortune and relatively high name recognition from his recent Senate bid, Bevin could really scramble the race.
But the word on the street is that the McConnell campaign did not have to use all of the opposition research it amassed on Bevin. Given that Bevin never did swallow his wounded pride and make a clear and unqualified post-primary endorsement of McConnell, some of that stuff could conceivably make its way into the governor's race.
Scott told ace political reporter Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader that he would have his decision on the race made by now, but might not announce it until January. Reports are that finding a credible running mate, which Kentucky law stupidly requires before a gubernatorial candidate can file, is a potential problem for Scott.
Amazingly, it looks like Conway will capture the Democratic nomination without any serious competition. Although Conway lost in a landslide to Republican Rand Paul for U. S. Senate in 2010 and inspires little enthusiasm among rank and file Democrats, he remains the darling of the party establishment.
Conway, another Louisvillian, is a cold fish when it comes to campaigning. When he tries to appear bold or passionate he comes off as a phony. One respected observer has rightly opined that Conway suffers from “an authenticity deficit.” In the minds of many he is merely a superficial creation of other people's ambitions and money.
Republican contenders have already put forward a number of ideas, if not comprehensive policy agendas, for moving Kentucky forward. Conway offers nothing comparable. No one knows what, if anything, he actually wants to do if he becomes governor.
The odds are that a Conway administration would be an unimaginative continuation of the bland, but admittedly popular approach of current Democratic governor Steve Beshear. In other words, run of the mill, status quo Democratic policies, plus a staunch defense of Obamacare and expanded Medicaid.
Conway can claim some successes as attorney general, including the typical anti-drug and consumer protection fare of that office. But his most politically significant action as attorney general was refusing to defend Kentucky's traditional marriage amendment on appeal after a federal judge struck it down. Opinions on gay marriage may be changing rapidly, but it is still hard to imagine that Conway's refusal to do what many consider his job as attorney general will be a political plus in socially conservative Kentucky.
Most Democrats acknowledge that lieutenant governor Crit Luallen, state auditor Adam Edelen, or Louisville mayor Greg Fischer would be better candidates and governors than Conway. Others understandably still harbor hopes that Greg Stumbo, the speaker of the state House, or Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state who just lost the U. S. Senate race to McConnell may yet jump in.
At the end of the day, any of the Republicans would probably prefer to run against Conway than any other credible Democratic possibility. Paul pasted him just five years ago; he's a lousy campaigner; he's a wealthy plaintiffs' lawyer from Louisville; he broke with Beshear by refusing to appeal the gay marriage case; and he apparently has no animating core beliefs beyond always seeking higher office.
So get ready Kentucky. A very interesting governor's race is about to begin in earnest.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.