Ky. voters likely to ask ‘who?’ as gubernatorial fight begins

By Jennifer Yachnin | 01/12/2015 07:20 AM EST

Kentucky’s airwaves may have quieted down since last fall’s bitter Senate campaign, but Bluegrass State voters shouldn’t expect the lull to last much longer: Just two weeks remain before the filing deadline for the state’s open-seat gubernatorial contest, and at least a half-dozen candidates are expected to vie for their party’s nominations.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) is term-limited from seeking another term in November, prompting the partisan tussle.

Even though the state’s congressional delegation has seven Republicans and one Democrat, Democrats have historically dominated the governor’s office — Ernie Fletcher became the first Republican to hold the office since 1971 when he won election in 2003, but lost his own re-election bid to Beshear in 2007. But Republicans see a chance to sweep into power in the off-year race.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) handily defeated his Democratic opponent with 56 percent in November, and President Obama has proven deeply unpopular in the state, where he took 38 percent in the 2012 election.

But a SurveyUSA poll conducted in late October for Kentucky media outlets showed voters split over who should control the state government in the 2015 election, with 43 percent favoring Democrats, 41 percent favoring Republicans and 17 percent undecided. The survey of 704 likely voters had a 3.8-point margin of error.

The Cook Political Report categorizes this year’s race as a "toss-up," its most competitive designation.

The chance to win the state’s top spot has drawn a competitive Republican field led by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner. The number of candidates is expected to grow before the filing deadline.

Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott is expected to make his candidacy official soon, and businessman Matt Bevin, who made a failed GOP primary challenge to McConnell last fall, is also contemplating a bid.

"Matt has not announced a run for governor but is still heavily considering the possibility," Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand told E&E Daily last week.

Political novice and military retiree Robert Lee Rosier is also seeking the GOP nomination.

The winner of the Republican nomination is widely expected to face Attorney General Jack Conway (D), who is facing off for the Democratic nomination with perennial candidate Geoff Young.

But Conway, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee against Sen. Rand Paul (R) in 2010, could face a serious fight for the nomination if banker Luther Deaton opts into the Democratic primary.

Deaton, president and CEO of Central Bank & Trust Co., told the Time-Warner Cable television station CN2 last week that he would make his decision "pretty close" to the Jan. 27 filing deadline.

"People all over this state are pushing me to run, but they can push all they want to," Deaton said. "I don’t just want to be governor just to be governor. If I don’t think I can make a difference in peoples’ lives and move this state forward, then I won’t run, pure and simple."

Candidates have already started filling their campaign coffers for the May 19 primary.

At the end of last year, Conway reported having raised about $1.3 million, while Comer claimed nearly $1.1 million and Heiner, a real estate developer, reported $4.6 million, most of which came from his own pocket. Neither Young nor Rosier raised significant funds, according to Kentucky’s Registry of Election Finance.

Coal boosters

Despite months of fundraising behind them, however, most candidates are still formulating formal platforms, and it remains to be seen what issues could become critical in the intraparty fights.

Although Heiner and Comer have sparred on occasion over how to address the future of the state’s coal industry, Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, suggested the issue is unlikely to stick once the primary gets underway in earnest.

"It is a tempting target, and Comer caught some flak for observations he offered on what’s going on in the coal industry — saying things that a lot of people outside the state consider almost obvious, not controversial," Voss said.

But Voss added: "It will be a tough sell to suggest that any of these candidates, if they took the governor’s mansion, would be hostile to coal. … I expect eventually the issue will die down."

Comer gained attention over remarks he made to a Louisville NPR station in late 2013, in which he suggested the state needed to address the struggling economy in areas once dominated by the coal industry.

"A lot of leaders in eastern Kentucky keep talking about ‘Coal is the answer, and there is a war on coal,’" said Comer, who served 11 years as a state lawmaker representing four counties along the Tennessee border. "I’m a friend of coal. I support the coal industry. But the coal industry’s future doesn’t look bright, and we have to look beyond that and learn to develop a new economy in eastern Kentucky."

Heiner seized on those remarks to criticize Comer last August, painting it as a fundamental disagreement between the candidates.

"He said that the coal industry’s future doesn’t look bright and we have to look beyond coal to something else. I think that with the proper leadership, the future of coal in Kentucky is very bright. We obviously differ on the future of coal," Heiner told public radio station WFPL.

But Voss asserted that the issue is likely to gain little traction in the gubernatorial primary, suggesting that candidates are likely to showcase few differences in their formal platforms.

"This issue has been powerful in congressional elections, but that’s when you have the specter of national environmental regulations hanging over the debate … all of these folks are going to be pro-coal at some level," he said.

In interviews with E&E Daily, aides to both Comer and Heiner offered similar perspectives on the role of energy policy in the upcoming campaign, with both vowing to battle federal regulation of the energy industry.

Comer campaign director Edwin King said the candidate also plans to focus on ways to revitalize eastern Kentucky’s economy, both by replacing jobs that have been lost in the coal industry and by defending the continued use of the resource.

"Coal will play a major factor just because Commissioner Comer has obviously championed and has been a supporter of coal and the coal industry," King said of his candidate, who also owns a beef cattle, timber and hay farming operation.

Heiner’s communications director, Doug Alexander, offered a similar assessment of energy policy’s role in the upcoming primary fight.

"Obviously, coal is a key issue, an extremely important issue in Kentucky. Hal Heiner knows how important it is. Besides being one of [the] more abundant natural resource[s], it’s provided jobs for generations of families in Kentucky, and we’ll do everything we possibly can to help bring those jobs back and promote the coal industry in any way we can," Alexander said. Heiner, who lives on a corn and soybean farm, has also worked on mine land reclamation projects during his tenure at a civil engineering firm.

In the meantime, candidates also have a more important topic to focus on in the initial weeks of the campaign: themselves.

The SurveyUSA poll conduct in October showed large numbers of voters without an opinion on either Comer or Heiner. Among those polled, 41 percent reported no opinion on either candidate, and large numbers of voters — 39 percent and 38 percent, respectively — reported neutral opinions on both candidates.

"These people need name recognition; that’s what they’re at now," Voss said.