No Clear Frontrunner: May 15, 2015

By John Gregory | 5/15/15 7:00 AM

As the GOP gubernatorial primary comes down to the finish line, tight poll results, troubling allegations, and divided inter-party allegiances have the pundits wondering which candidate will actually secure the nomination.

The panel on this weekend’s Comment on Kentucky updated that contest and previewed the other races in contention on Tuesday.

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No Clear Frontrunner
Two months ago, the Bluegrass Poll showed former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner with an eight-point lead over his GOP opponents in the gubernatorial primary race. But the new survey released last week shows a virtual tie among Heiner, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, and businessman Matt Bevin.

Lawrence Smith of WDRB-TV in Louisville attributes the shift to advertising. In the previous poll, Heiner was the only candidate airing TV spots. But Bevin and Comer have launched their ads in recent weeks, which Smith says has helped tighten the race.

While those three candidates are within two points of each other, their spread in specific regions around the state is dramatic. Joe Arnold of Louisville’s WHAS-TV says Comer is up by 15 points in western Kentucky, Bevin has a 17-point lead in northern Kentucky and the Lexington area, and Heiner holds Jefferson and nearby central Kentucky counties by 6 points.

Nick Storm of cn|2 says those regional leads are a factor in where the candidates have focused their advertising and campaign visits. He wonders if a candidate can win the nomination by scoring enough votes in smaller counties to compensate for losing one of the state’s population centers.

And what of the fourth GOP contender? Former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott has held steady at about 8 percent of likely Republican voters, according to the poll. Smith says that reflects Scott’s lack of money to buy ads to increase his profile.

Campaigns Close on Negative Notes
With such a tight race, and voter turnout expected to be about 10 percent, Joe Arnold says anything can happen in the gubernatorial contest. Some have questioned if GOP turnout could be further hurt by the abuse allegations circling Comer, and the charges Heiner’s campaign may have had a hand in making those accusations public.

Two new ads focus on the controversy. A pro-Comer PAC launched a commercial that features audio of Bevin saying Heiner told him months ago that “he knew things” about Comer. Lawrence Smith says Heiner responded with an ad of his own that criticized Comer and Bevin for trying to score political points over the controversy.

Joe Arnold says the Heiner camp is spending $500,000 to blanket the entire state with that ad. Storm says the commercial is unique because it represents Heiner’s first-ever negative political advertisement. Storm explains Heiner refused to go negative in his 2010 campaign for Louisville mayor, which some say cost him the race to Democrat Greg Fischer. Now in the last days of another tight contest, Storm says Heiner has adopted a negative strategy.

Arnold believes the fallout from the controversy could go deeper into the Kentucky Republican Party as the two camps draw up sides. State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R-Lexington), who supports Heiner, says she believes the allegations against Comer are true. Meanwhile former Congresswoman Anne Northup and former state Sen. Julie Rose Denton, both of Louisville, joined a number of current state lawmakers at a Frankfort rally last week to affirm their support for Comer.

Other Races on the Ballot
Despite the focus on the GOP gubernatorial contest, there are other races in contention. Current Attorney General Jack Conway faces former congressional candidate Geoff Young of Lexington in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Arnold says Conway made headlines last week for his lawsuit against Marathon Petroleum that charges the company uses monopolistic tactics to increase gas prices in the state, especially in Louisville and northern Kentucky.

The race to succeed Conway for attorney general features Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield against Lawrence County Attorney Mike Hogan. Nick Storm says Westerfield has raised more than $60,000 to Hogan’s $6,000. The winner of that primary will face Democrat Andy Beshear (son of Gov. Steve Beshear), who is running unopposed.

In a surprising move, Democratic state treasurer candidate Daniel Grossberg released a secret recording that he claims proves a campaign consultant tried to extort money from him. That race is a five-way Democratic primary, and a three-way Republican primary, which includes one candidate, Jon Larson of Lexington, who wants to abolish the office. (Storm clarifies that lawmakers and voters would have to approve changing the state Constitution to eliminate the treasurer’s office.)

And the agriculture commissioner race features two Republican state representatives, Richard Heath of Mayfield and Ryan Quarles of Georgetown. Storm says this race will be a geographic battle between western and central Kentucky voters. The winner of that primary will face Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, who is running unopposed.

The opinions expressed on Comment on Kentucky and in this program synopsis are the responsibility of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of KET.