Accusations Fly in GOP Primary: May 8, 2015

By John Gregory | 5/09/15 7:00 AM

The Kentucky gubernatorial primary has taken an ugly turn in the last weeks of the campaign as allegations fly among several of the Republican candidates.

How will the charges and counter-charges affect the outcome once the polls close on May 19? The panel on this weekend’s Comment on Kentucky attempted to sort out some of the possibilities.

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A Tangled Web of Accusations
The imbroglio primarily involves Republican gubernatorial candidates James Comer and Hal Heiner. Joseph Gerth of the Louisville Courier-Journal explains that a woman Comer dated while attending Western Kentucky University alleges that he physically and emotionally abused her during their two-year relationship. He says the woman, who now lives in New York, also claims Comer drove her to a Louisville abortion clinic to abort their child, and made a threatening late night phone call to her mother.

Gerth reports that former college roommates of the woman corroborate aspects of her story. For his part, Comer has strongly denied the allegations in multiple interviews, and says he can produce numerous friends from those years who will vouch for his character.

These rumors have dogged Comer from the beginning of the gubernatorial campaign, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman. The claims only recently gained widespread public attention after Youngman reported that KC Crosbie, Hal Heiner’s running mate, and her husband had some contact with a Lexington man who has blogged about the accusations for months.

Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders will investigate that blogger for separate allegations that he threatened Comer’s running mate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and his children. Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News Service says McDaniel criticized Crosbie and the Heiner campaign at a recent forum for what the senator called “gutter politics.” The grand jury in that case won’t convene until after the May 19 primary.

Challenges to Predicting a Winner
Ellis says it’s hard to tell what collateral damage may result from the various charges swirling around the Comer and Heiner camps. He explains that the dispute between the two has roots in previous Republican races, namely Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s contested re-election bid in 2007, and he says the division could haunt future GOP contests as well. As for this year’s race, Ellis reports he’s hearing from voters who say they’ll switch their support from Heiner or Comer to one of the other Republican contenders: Matt Bevin or Will T. Scott.

Youngman says Bevin has seized upon the nastiness between Heiner and Comer to launch a new television commercial that depicts actors representing those two candidates engaging in a food fight. But Youngman wonders if Bevin has the financial reserves to purchase enough airtime to push him victory, or if GOP voters have grown tired of Bevin since his unsuccessful race against Sen. Mitch McConnell last year.

Two other factors make forecasting the outcome difficult, according to the journalists. First, voter turnout is traditionally low in primary elections. Bill Bryant of WKYT-TV says turnout in the 2011 gubernatorial primary was about 10 percent. Also, it’s unusual for Republicans to have such a hotly contested primary, so it’s challenging to predict which GOP voters are likely to go to the polls, especially if they feel disaffected by the tenor of the campaign in the closing days.

Is GOP Unity Still Possible?
Once a Republican victor is announced, the question of party unity in the general election remains unclear. Joseph Gerth says the four candidates have pledged to support their party’s nominee, but Comer says he won’t support someone who is found to have violated the law. Gerth says that caveat stems from Comer’s contention that the Heiner campaign may be coordinating activities with the super PAC Citizens for Sound Government, which has run ads critical of Comer and Bevin. If such coordination could be proven, it would be a violation of campaign finance laws.

Youngman contends the personal rancor in the GOP primary was inevitable given how closely the candidates agree on key issues like their opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the Common Core educational standards, and their desire to make Kentucky a right-to-work state. Without starker policy differences, Youngman says the candidates were more likely to resort to personal mudslinging to differentiate themselves.

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.