GOP gubernatorial field may not be set, but observers say top-tier Republicans already in 2015 race

10/12/2014 04:09 PM

Election Day is 24 days away, and Nov. 4 will be a key date for a number of potential gubernatorial candidates who’ve remained on the sidelines during a contentious U.S. Senate campaign and several state House races that will decide control of the chamber. Pure Politics recently spoke to a pair of Republican political observers for their thoughts on possible candidates in 2015.

As a handful of Republicans consider running for governor in 2015, GOP political observers say the two slates formed thus far represent the party’s best candidates in next year’s primary.

Louisville real estate developer Hal Heiner entered the race before anyone, Democrat or Republican, in March and has largely filled his coffers from his own pocket. Heiner has loaned his campaign $4.2 million of the $4.45 million Heiner and his running mate, former Republican Party of Kentucky official K.C. Crosbie, have raised, giving him by far the greatest cash advantage of any gubernatorial candidate with $3.5 million on hand.

Heiner, a former Louisville metro councilman, narrowly lost to Democratic Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer by 6,872 votes in the 2010 mayoral race, but his opponent in next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, has attained early success in statewide politics, garnering the most votes of any candidate, including Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, in his first bid for constitutional office in 2011. Comer, who formed a slate with state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, has raised $534,556 since entering the race Sept. 9.

“My general view on the governor’s race on the Republican side is that the tier one candidates are already in the race, and that everyone else considering it falls somewhere in tier 2 or 3,” Scott Jennings, a former White House aide to President George W. Bush and campaign advisor for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, said in an email to Pure Politics.

“… I think Comer has had a marvelous roll out and clearly did a good job fundraising for his first report. I think Heiner’s personal contribution makes him a player until the end. They are clearly head and shoulders above anyone else looking at the race. The chatter I hear these days centers around what a good job Comer did on his campaign launch event, the video they released, and his fundraising totals. I don’t hear anyone clamoring for more candidates.”

Ted Jackson, a veteran Kentucky consultant in GOP politics who is supporting Comer’s campaign, said Republicans considering the race will face an uphill battle.

“Certainly anything can happen, but I don’t like their odds that’s for sure,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “… Wanting to be governor’s not enough or wanting to be the nominee is not enough, and these guys have got to be sober about their chances or they should be sober about their chances and the likelihood of prevailing.”

Heiner and Comer have said they will campaign and fundraise more aggressively after the Nov. 4 elections, in which Republicans are vying for control of the state House for the first time since 1921. They aren’t alone in focusing on legislative races this cycle, however. So too has…

Matt Bevin

Bevin, a Louisville businessman who lost a Tea Party-backed primary challenge against McConnell in May by nearly 25 percent, has appeared at a number of GOP events since his loss to McConnell, such as when House Republican candidates unveiled their “Handshake with Kentucky” platform. Like Heiner, Bevin has deep pockets to help finance a statewide run, loaning his U.S. Senate campaign more than $1.5 million, according to federal election records.

Jennings, in response to questions on three possible GOP entrants, said Bevin is the most likely to “have any juice in a poll right now” given his recent run for office, but his challenge against McConnell ended “staggeringly bad” and could haunt him in a gubernatorial primary. Should he decide to enter the 2015 race, McConnell provided other candidates plenty of ammunition to hammer Bevin in what’s expected to be a contentious GOP primary.

“I don’t think folks will soon forget the cockfighting episode, which will go down as one of the most bizarre scheduling choices in U.S. Senate campaign history,” Jennings, who heads pro-McConnell groups Kentuckians For Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition that have been active in the senator’s re-election campaign, said in an email.

“That having been said, of the three you mention, he is the only one who has actually been out and around lately meeting people and having ads run on his behalf, so I suppose of those three is the most potent one. But again, he should not assume any votes he received in the Senate primary would automatically return to him in 2015.”

Jackson also said Bevin shouldn’t count on the same level of support in a gubernatorial primary because the same Tea Party voters he relied on in his bid against McConnell will likely gravitate to Comer.

“If his constituency is the Tea Party, and I’m not willing to concede that, but if that’s his base constituency, then a lot of those people are going to vote for Jamie,” Jackson said. “So I don’t know how different they’re going to be on the issues, but once again, that’s an awful lot to bite off of in a primary for Matt Bevin. I don’t see Matt being able to generate a lot of traction if he does get in this race.”

While Bevin has personal resources to fund a campaign, Jackson said the Republican lacks a strong network of financial backers needed in a gubernatorial race.

“Certainly it’s partly about money and how much money he’s willing to put in the race to try to be competitive, and he’d have to put an awful lot in because I don’t see how he raises money,” Jackson said.

One potential candidate who owns a thick fundraising rolodex is…

Cathy Bailey

Bailey, a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia and prominent Republican fundraiser, has helped fill the campaign coffers of Bush, McConnell and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, among others throughout the years.

She, like Heiner, also formed a group aimed at electing GOP candidates for state House, raising nearly $91,000 through the federal PAC Kentucky Rise as of June 30, according to federal campaign finance records. Heiner’s New Direction Kentucky super PAC, by comparison, has netted $252,500.

Although she has helped raise money for GOP political causes, Jackson questioned whether she could attract the same financial backers for herself should she enter the Republican gubernatorial field, particularly since she has “no base.”

“First of all, Cathy has a lot of personal wealth,” Jackson said. “That would be where she’d have to look for the bulk of money she would need to make that race. I don’t care how good you are at raising money for a known figure whether it’s Sen. McConnell or President Bush. That’s one thing, but nobody, I don’t care how much money you have, you’re not going to give to a candidate if you don’t think they have a chance to win.

“So Cathy’s got to, if she made the race, she would first of all have to prove herself to be somewhat competitive to be able raise money. Just knowing people who have money and having your own money doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to raise money.”

While Jackson believes Bailey lacks a base of political supporters, that isn’t the case for…

Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott

Scott, who was first elected to a seat representing eastern Kentucky on the state’s highest court in 2004, has some experience running for constitutional office as the Republican nominee for attorney general in 1995. He also mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the former 7th Congressional District as the GOP pick in 1988 and 1990.

Scott “has some base,” Jackson said. “I think it’s very limited, frankly.”

The Republican “is a fiery guy,” but it remains to be seen whether his appeal as a statewide candidate would stretch beyond eastern Kentucky, Jackson said.

“It’s a big state, and how do you get outside your very narrow area where you may have some constituency?” Jackson continued. “I mean, western Kentucky for Will? Northern Kentucky? Louisville? I mean, it’s very problematic. Back to my point, a lot of people get in these races and get caught up in the emotion of it and they’re not logical enough in their analysis about where’s the vote going to come from. How does he get the majority on Election Day in May?”

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.


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