Five things to watch in tonight's Republican gubernatorial primary

05/19/2015 02:18 PM

After months of debates, chicken dinners, advertisements and, lately, heated personal allegations, three Republicans locked in a competitive primary battle have done nearly everything in their power to secure the nomination.

While Matt Bevin, James Comer and Hal Heiner publicly exude confidence in their chances with the latest public polling showing a statistical tie among them, those following the race say far too many factors are in play to accurately predict tonight’s outcome.

“There are so many variables in this race that it’s hard to tell right now which ones will have the most impact on Tuesday,” said Grayson Smith, a former Comer aide who has donated to Heiner.

As voters file into polling places across the state and ballots are tallied, here are some important factors political observers will keep their eyes on during Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary.


While this race hasn’t wanted for headlines in recent weeks, some have sensed a lack of excitement among the GOP electorate.

For Republican political consultant Ted Jackson, that means the gubernatorial primary hasn’t had a clear “breakout candidate” in the four-man pack. He says he expects 10 to 15 percent of Kentucky’s 1.2 million registered Republicans to hit the polls on Tuesday.

“The main factor here, I think, is that there is no frontrunner, and that’s what creates enthusiasm and excitement and gets people to the polls,” said Jackson, a Comer supporter. “Now having said that, as we’ve discussed before Jamie has a better claim to real excited voters than either one of these other two candidates.”

Trey Grayson, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican secretary of state, said he expects GOP turnout to reach the mid-teens.

That would put this year’s turnout around the average of the past five Republican gubernatorial primaries of 14.3 percent. If the 1999 primary won by Peppy Martin in which 4.5 percent of Republicans voted is removed from the equation, though, the average jumps to 16.8 percent.

A higher turnout primary could benefit Heiner given the spending advantage he’s had on the airwaves, but no one in the race brings the political heft seen in recent campaigns, Grayson said.

“Ernie Fletcher had been elected in the 6th Congressional District in a couple of really competitive races that at the time made Lexington TV,” he said. “Same with Anne Northup in 2007 dominating Louisville TV, so these were better known figures.

“… This is more like in ’11 where David Williams was probably decently well known, but Phil Moffett wasn’t known really at all.”

Central time zone returns

If the election remains tight as polls close in the 41 Kentucky counties in Central Standard Time, Comer could be in a prime position to win.

“As far as the numbers speak it would,” said Smith, of Salyersville.

Despite low numbers of registered Republicans, those counties accounted for an average of 19.2 percent of the overall vote total in the past five Republican gubernatorial primaries.

But to keep within striking distance, Smith and Jackson said Comer must perform well in the “Old 5th” GOP stronghold of south-central Kentucky.

Smith said Comer needs his supporters in south-central counties west of Pulaski County, such as Russell, Adair, Barren and Monroe counties, to cast ballots so he can stay competitive as polls close in western Kentucky.

“West of Pulaski’s going to be very strong for Jamie,” he said. “He has to have that to have a chance at winning. He has to really run the score up there.”

Comer, the first-term agriculture commissioner, must exit south-central Kentucky “very strong” to stay within striking distance, Jackson said.

“Those counties in the west, that could be where it’s ultimately won or lost, again depending on how each of these guys do and how competitive it is when we get into that time zone,” he said.

“But I’d be surprised if anybody calls this race too early. Those numbers are going to have to come in, in other words, to really see, and if they’re splitting them all up down there, I don’t know how that’s going to go. I think Jamie still is stronger in that area.”

Bases of support

Comer will not be the only candidate tapping into a base of support.

Heiner, a former Louisville Metro Council member and 2010 mayoral candidate, needs Jefferson County voters to hit the polls while Bevin’s appeal is higher in northern Kentucky than elsewhere, observers say.

“Whatever the number is that they have to have in Jefferson County, Bevin has really hurt that scenario,” Jackson said, noting he has received six direct-mail pieces from Bevin and one from Heiner at his Jefferson County home. “… People who can’t sort out all the fighting and disagreement between Jamie and Hal, then he becomes a legitimate alternative.”

Smith said he expects a stronger turnout in Jefferson County, which has typically topped statewide turnouts in Republican primaries and, on average, accounted for 21.3 percent of the overall vote total in the past five GOP gubernatorial races.

Some in Jefferson County don’t see Bevin as a “homegrown” candidate, and his tea party appeal generally comes from an area known for lagging turnout numbers, Smith said. The three northernmost counties — Boone, Campbell and Kenton — averaged 9.3 percent turnout in the last five gubernatorial elections.

“If there’s a larger turnout in northern Kentucky, I think it benefits Bevin,” Smith said.

Will T. Scott votes

Although he polls in the single digits, the former Kentucky Supreme Court justice could play spoiler in this election.

With the negative attention attracted by the race, observers say Scott could be seen as a protest vote for some voting in the Republican primary.

After running Supreme Court, congressional and attorney general races over the years, Scott’s familiarity on the ballot could add to his appeal in eastern Kentucky, they added.

Scott appears poised to draw votes that would have gone to Comer or Bevin, Grayson said.

“Maybe he pulls from Comer because if we assume that Comer has more rural strength and Will T.’s going to have good support in eastern Kentucky, that might hurt him with a vote that Comer otherwise would have gotten,” Grayson said.

“Arguably he could also hurt Bevin a little bit. If you’re in the school of thought that Bevin’s going to benefit from the fighting between Heiner and Comer here in the last couple of weeks, does Scott become an alternative to say, ‘To heck with the three of them. Comer and Heiner are fighting but Bevin did that last year to McConnell, so I’m just going to vote for Will T.’”

Party unity

The candidates have pledged to support the GOP nominee, but that doesn’t mean hard feelings will be instantly forgotten once the race is called.

A college girlfriend has accused Comer of abusing her physically and mentally during a two-year relationship and taking her to a Louisville abortion clinic in 1991. Comer has denied the allegations, instead alleging collusion between Heiner’s campaign and a Lexington blogger who promoted the abuse story.

Also, Bevin did not publicly endorse McConnell’s candidacy after a nearly 25-point lost to arguably the most powerful Republican in Kentucky politics in last year’s Senate primary.

Jackson said the average GOP voter isn’t aware whether Bevin endorsed McConnell, but the animosity between some Comer and Heiner supporters is real.

“They (Comer) feel that they have been very wronged by this campaign that Hal’s run,” he said. “Whether they have or not, somebody else can sort that out. I’m just talking about perceptions, and this is deep, deep, deep hatred, and it’s across the board for Jamie’s supporters.”

If Comer wins, Smith says he will want to see how many supporters from other camps line up behind Comer “if any of them believe that the allegations are indeed true.”

Grayson, who lost to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2010, said Republicans have regrouped after contentious primaries, pointing to the 2010 U.S. Senate race as an example of what to look for from candidates.

“If that process of sort of healing the party and party unity starts to happen quicker tonight, that’s positive,” Grayson said. “If it doesn’t happen, I don’t know that that means the party won’t come together.

GOP voters will “most likely prefer the Republican candidate,” he added.

“Issues can have a way of sometimes trumping some of the personalities and some of the politics and some of the history,” he said. “Probably easier to do in a federal race than a state governor’s race, but the party’s unified by its beliefs, and the ability of those voters and those leaders and those activists to focus on those beliefs and focus on those issues where things are in common can certain go a long way in helping to unify the party.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.