Jack Conway's not singing lonely holiday blues in sparse Democratic gubernatorial field

12/24/2014 04:14 PM

The holidays are a time of togetherness, but Attorney General Jack Conway is content to spend this season as the lone big-name Democrat in the 2015 gubernatorial field.

Conway hopes that will continue until 4:01 p.m. Jan. 27. But past election cycles have shown that January can bring campaign surprises as the filing deadline approaches.

Democrats have historically crowded Kentucky gubernatorial races, but as the only prominent contender, Conway has had the primary field to himself since he launched his bid in early May. That’s allowed him to net key endorsements from current Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, the state’s lone congressional Democrat in U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford of Owensboro and a bevy of labor groups, most recently the Kentucky Pipe Trades Association last week. Conway and his running mate, House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly of Paris, have filled their campaign coffers with $1.15 million in contributions, giving the slate an early fundraising cushion.

Conway believes his campaign has made strides to unify Democrats behind his candidacy. He said he will let political pundits analyze who could potentially join him in the 2015 Democratic primary.

“I can only control what we do in our campaign,” Conway said in a recent interview. “I can only control what Sannie and I want to do collectively to move the state forward, and I think it’s resonating. I think we have some momentum, so no I’m not surprised, but obviously there’s still time until the filing deadline.”

In the 2003 election cycle, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles and state Rep. Jody Richards of Bowling Green, then speaker of the House, formed exploratory committees in April 2002, allowing them to test the waters before formally declaring their bids in early December. That was the last year in which Kentucky allowed exploratory committees for potential gubernatorial candidates. Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford filed candidacy paperwork Jan. 10, 2003.

In 2007, however, a slew of candidates entered the race in the weeks before the filing deadline.With Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher reeling from a hiring scandal that led to his indictment on misdemeanor charges, the first Democratic candidate, former state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, emerged Dec. 15, 2006, with current Gov. Steve Beshear starting his path to victory days later. Miller ultimately exited the race, but the rest of the field crystallized in rapid succession in late January with former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry forming a ticket Jan. 23, 2007, Richards entering the fray the next day, and Lunsford surprising many by teaming up with then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo on Jan. 29.

Conway has sidestepped considerable primary opponents, with Luallen, former Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, state Auditor Adam Edelen and former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler passing on next year’s gubernatorial race. Still, there are some Democrats who could quickly jolt to life a ho-hum race for the party’s nomination.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is one name to consider, although a growing number expect her to run for a second term following a grueling 15-point loss to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell this fall. Grimes recently told WHAS-TV’s Joe Arnold that she’s weighing all of her options for next year’s elections.

In an interview with Pure Politics’ Nick Storm last week, Yarmuth said he thinks “the smart move” for Grimes will be running for re-election and look ahead to 2016. Yarmuth, who backed Grimes’ U.S. Senate bid, said the secretary of state would face long odds against Conway in a primary battle.

“I can’t believe she would have more than a 50-50 chance of beating Jack, and if she lost in a Democratic primary after her high-profile race, then she’s going to set her career back,” Yarmuth said.

Lexington banker Luther Deaton has generated some recent buzz among political observers, and like Lunsford, he’d have personal capital to finance his campaign should he become a candidate. However, Lunsford entered the 2007 Democratic primary, in which he finished second behind Beshear, as a known commodity after he dumped $8 million into an abandoned gubernatorial bid four years prior.

Others who haven’t made their 2015 plans clear include former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard and Stumbo, the current House speaker from Prestonsburg. Stumbo stirred the political waters earlier this month when he raised concerns of Conway’s electability in a general election, specifically that Conway hails from Louisville and no attorney general has stepped directly into the governor’s mansion. In addition, Stumbo said Conway might have hurt himself with conservative voters after the attorney general declined to appeal a judge’s ruling against Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriages.

Conway said Stumbo hadn’t shared those misgivings with him.

“I find it a little bit hypocritical,” he said before breaking down Stumbo’s criticisms. “… I was a little bit perplexed by it and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it since that interview, but it just didn’t really seem to have much rationale, and it certainly didn’t seem to have much rationale coming from him.”

Yarmuth said Conway can beat either of the two Republican candidates, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer of Tompkinsville and Louisville businessman Hal Heiner.

Watch how Yarmuth sees possible Conway-Heiner and Conway-Comer races stacking up:

A strong showing in his fourth quarter fundraising report could boost Conway’s chances of avoiding a late surge from fellow Democrats with gubernatorial ambitions.

The last few months of the year, though, “is always the toughest quarter to raise money,” he said, noting the campaign paused its fundraising schedule to focus on raising cash for House Democrats and Grimes. Donors were “tapped out” by November, and Conway was sidelined for three weeks in December for back surgery.

“It’ll far and away be our leanest quarter, but in the grand scheme of things by the end of the year we’ll have about $1.5 million raised,” Conway said. “I think we’ll be at about $2 million raised by the filing deadline, and then I think we’re well on track to do the $3.5 million budget we’ve put together for the primary.

“My expectation has been it’d be about $3.5 million raised for the primary and about $5 (million) for the general. Those are the numbers Gov. Beshear put up in both of his races, and I think we’re ahead of his pace at this point right now.”

The attorney general, who loaned his unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign $625,000, isn’t saying whether he plans to pump his own money into his gubernatorial bid.

“Not at this point. I don’t have an opponent,” he quipped.

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 kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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