Jack Conway takes reins of party as Kentucky Democrats rally behind "new generation" of candidates

02/09/2015 10:41 PM

FRANKFORT — Kentucky Democrats got their first glimpse of the party under gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway Monday, as the party faithful welcomed a new chairman with close ties to the likely nominee and rallied behind this year’s crop of candidates.

Conway will almost certainly head the Democratic ballot this fall as his former chief deputy attorney general, Edgewood attorney Patrick Hughes, leads the Kentucky Democratic Party in his first election cycle as chairman, an appointment announced Saturday.

Gov. Steve Beshear, speaking to about 100 at Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters, called this fall’s elections “pivotal” and the Democrats assembled behind him the “new generation of leadership.”

“There hasn’t been an election year in my memory that means more to the future of this state than this year,” the term-limited governor said. “It is a question of whether we want this state to continue to move into the future and be a leader and a model for this nation or whether we want to join that race back to the 19th century that so many of the deep South states are involved in right now.”

Conway and other Democrats refined their campaign talking points for the friendly audience, with the two-term attorney general offering a glimpse of a campaign platform that includes higher education reform, increased spending in pre-kindergarten programs and improved accessibility to broadband Internet.

He also mentioned the man he hopes to succeed, calling Beshear “an honest and ethical governor who has guided us with distinction during very difficult times,” and quoted the poet Robert Frost in looking at the months of campaigning ahead.

“Folks, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Conway said.

Conway isn’t the only one with a heavy workload in the next eight months. Hughes said he plans to extend his message of unity to the party as a whole, not just in supporting this latest crop of candidates.

“There needs to be a two-way communication across the state at every level, and that’s going to apply whether it’s the governor’s office, the agriculture commissioner’s office or the attorney general,” he said in an interview after the rally.

“So we as Democrats are committed to making sure that every Kentuckian has the opportunity to communicate with their elected officials.”

He must also replenish the party’s campaign coffers after a costly U.S. Senate election last year. State Democratic and Republican parties spent a combined $12.3 million in the campaign cycle, according to reports to the Federal Election Commission.

Democrats will have “plenty of money” for the fall campaign, Hughes said.

“We’re going to have to raise some,” he said. “We’re going to go out to our supporters and donors and people that share our vision for Kentucky’s future, and we’ll have plenty of money to run a successful election for all of our candidates.”

Those candidates include state Auditor Adam Edelen, who is seeking re-election; Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has an unknown primary challenger in her re-election bid; attorney general candidate Andrew Beshear, the governor’s son; and agriculture commissioner candidate Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, all of whom addressed the party faithful. Five Democrats are running in the primary for state treasurer, but none spoke Monday.

Neither did Conway’s opponent, retired engineer Geoff Young. He stood outside KDP headquarters holding a sign mocking Conway and Grimes as the event ended.

Hughes said holding such an event for Conway and Grimes, who have not secured the party’s nominations, did not violate KDP bylaws.

“It’s clear that Jack Conway’s going to be our nominee for governor; it’s clear that Alison Grimes is going to be our nominee for secretary of state,” Hughes said. “So we’re comfortable moving forward on that. We’ve got a great team.”

Edelen called Monday an “historic” moment in Kentucky Democratic politics, particularly after witnessing the party’s rough-and-tumble gubernatorial primaries. Kentucky Republicans must choose between Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former Louisville Metro Council member Hal Heiner, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin and former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Democrats’ ability to coalesce behind Conway’s leadership not only demonstrates the party’s strength, but also foretells success in November.

“For the first time since I’ve been paying attention, which is an awfully long time, we have come to unify around a set of candidates that I think represent the future of the state,” Edelen, who’s seeking re-election, told a crowd of around 100.

“And that’s a big deal because I’m pretty confident we’re going to be opposed by a slate of candidates who sound a whole lot like the past of this state.”

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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