Jack Conway sees fertile electoral ground in N. Ky., but both sides hoping for crossover appeal on Election Day

10/11/2015 09:31 PM

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway is hoping to make inroads in some of the state’s most conservative northern counties.

The gubernatorial nominee visited a recently opened Democratic field office in Covington before a fundraiser in Fort Mitchell on Saturday, covering many of his campaign’s key planks with volunteers and reiterating how important their efforts will be as the Nov. 3 election nears.

“We’re going to have a strong turnout operation,” Conway said in an interview after the event, noting that his campaign has field staffers in all 120 counties. “I’m up here in northern Kentucky today at Democratic headquarters, urging them on here these last 23 days.

“A lot of people think of northern Kentucky as a Republican area, but you know what, when I ran for (attorney general) the first time I carried two of these counties.”

That wasn’t the case in the state’s most populous northern counties of Boone, Kenton and Campbell, however.

Conway trounced state Rep. Stan Lee by 20 percent in 2007, but he only carried Campbell County by 199 votes. He lost Boone County to Lee by 3,620 votes and Kenton County by 1,372.

In his 10-point win four years later against Madisonville attorney Todd P’Pool, the margins were wider despite a lower turnout. Conway lost Boone by 4,757 votes, Campbell by 981 and Kenton by 3,283.

By comparison, Bevin carried each of the three northernmost counties by at least 1,000 votes in this year’s Republican primary, collecting nearly 53 percent of the vote there in his 83-vote victory. His largest margin came in Boone County, where he outpaced the three other GOP candidates’ combined total by 997 votes.

Still, Conway believes his message is resonating with voters in the northern part of Kentucky and will translate into success in the region. His proposal for an office dedicated to small businesses is particularly popular, he said.

“I’m not talking about a big new cabinet and lots of new money,” he said. “I’m talking about having ombudspeople in the governor’s office in a particular office devoted to promoting small businesses, and that’s what people in northern Kentucky want to hear about. They’re business-minded people up here. They share their economic activity with Cincinnati. They’re looking for collaboration, and having someone in the governor’s office that’s a resource to them on issues I think is very, very important.”

Col Owens, chairman of the Kenton County Democratic Party, said get-out-the-vote initiatives in Covington have ramped up in recent weeks.

“I think we’re getting our effort cranked up a little later than normal, but having this new headquarters is helping us a lot and it’s a location that people can identify with, come to and get materials, get signs, get materials to go out and walk or make calls,” Owens said.

“What I’m finding from the little bit of voter contacting I’ve been doing is that surprisingly for what’s supposed to be a low-voter interest election, people know more than I might have thought they’d know about the candidates, about certainly in the governor’s race,” he continued.

Conway points to an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer published Friday that quotes some Republicans in the area that are backing his campaign as evidence that a number within the GOP ranks are backing away from Bevin’s candidacy.

Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore isn’t one of them, and he says Bevin’s message is resonating with conservatives in northern Kentucky. He said he’s among a group of elected officials who will man phone banks at Bevin’s Boone County field office on Monday.

“The conservatives here definitely are responding well, I think, to the fact that the priorities that Frankfort has had for the last several years are in jeopardy because of the budget shortfall and the overcommitments that have been made with pensions, Medicaid and other items,” Moore said in a phone interview Sunday.

“Conservatives here know that’s not sustainable, and the conservative message that Bevin has is what they’re looking for.”

Former Republican state Sen. Katie Stine agrees and said the article published as she and other Republicans in the area prepared a Kenton County fundraiser scheduled for Oct. 23. She said Bevin’s endorsements by the National Rifle Association and Kentucky Right to Life combined with his private-sector experience would help sway voters in northern Kentucky toward his candidacy.

“I thought how ironic that here we were putting the finishing touches on a fundraiser that has over 150 hosts all across northern Kentucky — prominent Republicans, ordinary Republicans, extremely conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, everybody coming together in one unified effort to say Matt Bevin is the guy that we are supporting,” she said in a phone interview. “He is the man who is going to help Kentucky get back on its feet. He’s going to right this ship.”

Observers like former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson have said this year’s governor’s race lacks the excitement and enthusiasm of years past.

Conway disagrees, saying Grayson’s perspective shows lacking interest among traditional Republicans in the state.

“A lot of these establishment Republicans are not feeling enthusiastic because their interests, their priorities and their way of doing business is not aligned with the Republican nominee in this race, and I haven’t seen my opponent reaching out to a lot of people in the Republican Party,” Conway said.

“I have been trying to do that and reminding people that, look, on the heroin issue for example, which is so important here in northern Kentucky, two years ago the first draft of that bill was written by my office in conjunction with state Sen. Katie Stine from up here. We reached across the aisle, worked with a Republican. It wasn’t a partisan issue.”

Stine, however, said Conway’s running mate, House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly, played politics with the bill “at the 11th hour,” tacking on an amendment legalizing public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects before the House took up the bill on the session’s final day. That, Stine said, would have opened the door for tolling on the Brent Spence Bridge, a nonstarter for many northern Kentucky lawmakers.

Senate Bill 5 ultimately died in the House as the General Assembly adjourned sine die April 15, 2014, the same day the chamber took up the bill but could not pass it.

“It was just as if she were thumbing her nose at those of us in northern Kentucky who feel very strongly that we must take of stand against heroin, and that piece of legislation was the only piece of legislation that I filed that year, 2014, because I felt so strongly that we had to address this issue.

“And the House killed that bill, and you have to ask yourself how many people died from overdoses in the time that we passed that bill in the Senate (Jan. 16, 2014) … and when they finally in a year, more than a year later, finally managed to pass it in the chambers the following year.”

Both sides see opportunities for crossover votes.

Bevin will need it more than Conway given the registration disparity in favor of Democrats, and supporters in both camps have reason for optimism after talking to voters of the opposite party.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence you hear of people who say, ‘I’m not going to vote for that guy,’ meaning in this instance for Bevin,” Owens said. “Some of them will vote for Jack. Some of them will simply not vote, either of which is OK with us.”

Both Stine and Moore, in reference to the Cincinnati Enquirer article, said conservative Democrats in the area backing Bevin can be found.

“I hear that as well, yes,” Moore said when asked about Democrats in the region who support the GOP nominee. “… Conservative Democrats across the commonwealth have been voting Republican, as we know, in federal elections. I believe this governor’s cycle you will see some of the same.”

Bevin’s campaign did not return a request for comment Sunday afternoon.

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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