Kentucky Democrats happy to avoid contentious primary for governor as they watch the GOP horse race

05/02/2015 10:28 PM

As throngs of Kentucky Derby-goers packed Churchill Downs on Saturday, Kentucky Democrats are enjoying another race that could come down to the wire later this month: the Republican gubernatorial primary.

“It’s a lot of fun,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said of the four-way GOP primary.

Gov. Steve Beshear added: “They’re having a good time it looks like among the four of them going back and forth.”

This year’s race for the governorship is an oddity, with only Attorney General Jack Conway seeking the Democratic nomination among prominent contenders after a rich history of competitive primaries when that office is open.

“We’ve obviously in the Democratic Party in Kentucky had a number of contested primaries,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. “It’s sort of fun to watch them go through the same transition that we had to go through.”

But Republicans have bruised one another in gubernatorial primaries. Former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup’s challenge against then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2007, for instance, created a rift between some in the party that’s reemerged in this year’s primary.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer backed Northup, and he recently criticized former Fletcher aides who support one of his opponents, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner. Comer, though, has employed former Fletcher staffers to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and he told reporters his remarks were not aimed at everyone who worked under Fletcher and he called the second Republican governor in nearly 50 years “a good man.”

Conway fended off a competitive primary, but he took some criticism from Democrats like Stumbo, who was mentioned as a possible entrant in this year’s race and in December expressed concerns of Conway’s electability statewide.

The House speaker said Saturday he’s glad the party has coalesced behind Conway.

“Jack’s made an effort to get out all across Kentucky,” Stumbo said. “I called him last week, he was in western Kentucky. He was in my home area of eastern Kentucky the week before that, and I couldn’t join him because I had a conflict.

“And what you don’t understand is that an attorney general has a limited audience because of the office, but now he’s expanded that audience, he’s moving out, he’s showing people who he is, and people are being very receptive to him.”

Conway has $1.4 million on hand, raising $2.2 million since entering the race a year ago, according to his campaign’s 32-day, pre-primary report to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Beshear said Conway’s concentration on fundraising will serve him well in the fall.

“Unfortunately these races have gotten to where that’s about the top priority so that you can be on TV and get your message out, but he’s doing a good job of it,” the Democratic governor said. “I’m helping him. I’m going to be in it with both feet, because Jack, to me, Jack Conway is the guy that is going to take what we’ve done on eight years and build on it.

“You know, there’s no reason to get out here and tear everything down just because somebody else did it.”

Beshear has reason to feel defensive, particularly on the health-care issues that have drawn national attention to the two-term governor and Kentucky.

Three Republicans — Comer, Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin and former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott — say unequivocally they would reverse Beshear’s decision to expand Medicaid and dismantle the state-based health exchange kynect. Heiner has proposed creating a modified approach to health coverage for low-income residents, although he has said kynect “needs to end as it exists today.”

Each candidate, unequivocally, wants Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“We’ll see” how much the health care issue will affect the race, Beshear said. Some 375,000 were covered under expanded Medicaid in the program’s first year, according to an analysis from the governor’s office.

“I think that Attorney General Conway believes that we ought to have health care for our people, and I think he will build on what we’ve done,” Beshear said. “Should it be tweaked? Are there different ways you can some things? Sure, and everybody will have their own ideas about how to move forward and build on what we have.”

Ultimately, the governor said he expects kynect will remain intact once he leaves office.

“We’ve got over 500,000 Kentuckians right now that have accessible health care because of those programs,” Beshear said. “… In the long run, my guess is that nobody is going to tamper with that because we’re getting healthier all the time because of those programs.”

UPDATE: This report has been corrected to reflect that Conway isn’t the only Democrat in this year’s gubernatorial primary. He faces relative unknown Geoff Young, who has self-funded his candidacy with a nearly $22,000 loan, according to his pre-primary report to KREF.

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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