Analyzing the Aftermath of Primary Election Results

By John Gregory | 5/23/15 7:00 AM

Barring surprise outcomes in the recanvass of votes in the Republican primaries for governor and agriculture commissioner, Kentucky’s general election ballot is set. But how several of those campaigns will play out in the months ahead is anything but certain.

The panel on Comment on Kentucky discussed the results of last week’s voting, and what it could mean for the winners.

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The Secretary of State’s office will conduct a revcanvass of the primary election totals on Thursday morning, May 28, at the request of GOP gubernatorial candidate James Comer. Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader says Comer trails likely Republican nominee Matt Bevin by 83 votes. Since 2011, state election officials have conducted five recanvasses, and Youngman says none of those efforts changed the outcomes of those races.

The wild ride on Primary Election night saw Bevin mount a 12,000-vote lead before Comer staged a comeback once totals from his strongholds in western and southern Kentucky were tallied. But Nick Storm of cn|2, says the results flipped again when Comer, who is Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture, lost several key farming counties including Daviess and Ohio to Bevin.

Bevin’s Path to Apparent Victory
Early in the race, most of the attention focused on Hal Heiner, the Louisville real estate developer who pumped $4 million of his own money in his campaign, and Comer, who had a strong network of local contacts. While they battled, Youngman says Bevin largely stayed above the fray. Even when a pro-Heiner super PAC launched an attack ad against Bevin, Youngman says Bevin turned the spot back on Heiner and labeled him a negative campaigner.

Then late in the contest, an old college girlfriend accused Comer of abusing her, and Heiner’s campaign was tagged with helping to promote those allegations. Youngman says the scandal hurt both Comer and Heiner while giving Bevin a path to victory. Heiner came in third, some 12,000 votes behind Comer. Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott placed a distant fourth.

Nick Storm says he’s surprised no one attacked Bevin’s credibility on issues like the cock-fighting rally Bevin says he unwittingly attended during his U.S. Senate bid last year. Youngman adds that Sen. Mitch McConnell successfully made Bevin’s integrity a key campaign issue in that Republican primary last year.

Prospects for the Fall Campaign
Senator McConnell has pledged to endorse Bevin if the recanvass confirms his victory. The bigger question, according to Youngman, is will McConnell do more.

He says the GOP leader wants to put a Republican in the governor’s office, but wonders if McConnell will commit his full fundraising prowess and political networks to help his former opponent. Youngman and Storm say bad blood remains between the two men over attacks they made against each other in last year’s Senate primary and for Bevin’s tepid support of McConnell in the general election.

Bevin’s apparent primary victory has changed how national pundits view Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. Host Bill Bryant says The Cook Political Report moved the contest from a toss-up to leaning toward a Democratic victory. University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato has reclassified the race from leaning Republican to a toss-up.

Other Statewide Contests
State Rep. Richard Heath has requested a recanvass of the vote totals in the Republican primary for Agriculture Commissioner. Storm says Health trails fellow state Rep. Ryan Quarles by 1,427 votes. The winner will face Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Storm says the race for attorney general is shaping up to be an interesting contest as Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville will face Democratic Andy Beshear, a Louisville attorney and son of Gov. Steve Beshear. Storm says Republicans wants to ensure GOP victories in the races for governor and attorney general, so he expects party loyalists to pump significant resources into Westerfield’s campaign to help counter Beshear’s current fundraising advantage.

Another intriguing fight looms in the Kentucky Auditor’s race between incumbent Democrat Adam Edelen and Republican state Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville. Sam Youngman says Harmon’s campaign team includes Jesse Benton, who has worked for Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell. Youngman says Benton wants to “rough up” Edelen in case the Democrat decides to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016 against Paul.

The remaining statewide contests are the Treasurer’s race, which pits Republican Allison Ball, a bankruptcy attorney in Prestonsburg, against Democratic state Rep. Rick Nelson of Middlesboro. And the Secretary of State’s race between incumbent Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Steve Knipper, a former Erlanger city councilman.