Few competitive gubernatorial elections occur the year before the Presidential season kicks off. But the most competitive of the batch (Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana) has consistently been Kentucky. Since 2003 in Louisiana and 2007 in Mississippi the states have taken hard right turns at all levels of governance. In 2014 the GOP took control of West Virginia’s state legislature and the open governor’s race this year could finally fall into the party’s hands.
Kentucky has not followed such a trend. Despite having a strong Republican lean at the federal level the state has had a Democratic Governor for 36 of the last 40 years. The Democratic Party also maintains a slim 6 seat majority in the state house (53-47). Further, Democrats control all statewide executive offices except Agricultural Commissioner. Kentucky Democrats have done this by emphasizing their rural roots and distancing themselves successfully from their party’s progressive heavy national brand. Something Democrats running for federal office in the state have been unable to do (sorry, Allison Lundgrin Grimes).
Still, Republicans remain optimistic 2015 could be their year to reclaim the Governor’s mansion. Popular Democratic Governor Steven Beshear is retiring and the Democrat likely to replace him is current AG Jack Conway. Conway is best known for his 12% loss to Rand Paul for the then Senator Jim Bunning’s seat in 2010. Conway seems to have learned his lesson from the loss and has changed his tone and tactics for a gubernatorial contest. He is emphasizing his state roots and is courting the state’s socially conservative electorate by deemphasizing his support for abortion and emphasizing his opposition to gay marriage (a flip from 2010 when he supported it).
The GOP field is muddled. Officially four candidates are in the GOP primary; James Comer, Hal Heiner, Matt Bevin and Will Scott. However, Comer, Bevin and Heiner are the only three viable candidates and they are neck and neck in the GOP primary. Comer, the state’s Agricultural Commissioner, was originally the front-runner but allegations from his ex-girlfriend that he abused her when they were in college decades earlier (stop me if you’ve heard this before) have hurt him. Now, Louisville businessman Hal Heiner and 2014 GOP Senate candidate Matt Bevin have gained. Heiner appeals more to the business community and has aided in splitting Comer’s support while Bevin retains the support of the grassroots and Tea Party.
Who wins the GOP primary next Tuesday could depend on their bases of support and turnout. A recent WHAS11/Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll found Bevin (27%), Comer (26%), and Heiner (25%) in a statistical dead heat. But their regional support strongly varied. Comer led by 15% in the rural Southwest while tying Heiner in the Southeast. Bevin lead by 17% in the Northcentral region of the state while Heiner led by 6% in the Louisville area.
By far the two largest voting areas in recent GOP primaries (2010, 2011, 2014) have been the Louisville and Northcentral region. Turnout in the Southeast is sporadic and weak while the Southwest is little better. In other words, Bevin’s lead regionally could carry him through to the general. However, if Heiner’s lead is actually larger in Louisville than the Bluegrass poll suggests he could easily win with 30% of the total vote. Bevin also suffers a question mark in the poll because his support is primarily young yet primary voters have historically been older.
Whichever GOP nominee makes it out of the primary will face a tough climb in the general despite the state’s conservative lean. Conway leads all possible GOP challengers by varying margins. He leads Comer 45%-39%, Heiner 48%-36% and Bevin 48%-37%. This seems to be more of a reflection of the nastiness of the GOP primary and Conway largely cruising through an uncontested primary of his own.
Conway can virtually be assured of victory if he maintains support in the areas that Beshear and former Democrats have held, the Northcentral region and urban Louisville. Northcentral Kentucky has ever so steadily been becoming more Republican at the federal level. In 2008 and 2012 Obama carried a total of five counties in the region (including Fayette). In 2010, Conway actually carried the region against Paul. But fast forward to the 2014 Senate contest and Grimes performed significantly worse than Conway. The parallels between the two candidates are striking. Both were sitting statewide officials in largely nonpartisan offices. Yet, voters in the region shifted their partisan preferences significantly.
However, these were federal elections. Statewide elections are a different matter and Beshear’s legacy of social conservatism and fiscal moderation will likely benefit Conway. GOP strength at the state level has varied since 2003 (last time they won the governorship). That year the GOP found a winning formula by overcoming Democratic margins in Louisville and the Northcentral/Northeast by running strongly in the Southwest. Whoever makes it out of the GOP primary Tuesday will need to do the same or find a way to make inroads among local Democrats in the Northcentral region.
Addendum: A follow-up post will be written before the November election.