Money Matters: How a coal magnate and his wife will help level the gubernatorial playing field

09/09/2014 05:46 PM

The emergence of prominent GOP fundraisers Joe Craft and his wife Kelly Knight in Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer’s gubernatorial campaign is “a coup” for the Republican hopeful, state political observers say.

Craft, CEO of Tulsa, Okla.-based Alliance Resource Partners, and Knight, a former U.S. delegate to the United Nations, offer a dense fundraising roster as former co-chairs of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Kentucky financial apparatus in 2012. What’s more, observers say the couple, who will serve as honorary co-chairs, brings instant credibility to Comer’s gubernatorial bid.

Both will be key for Comer as he faces Republican Hal Heiner, a Louisville real estate developer who has loaned his campaign $4.2 million as of June 30, in the GOP primary next May.

“The rolodex they bring to a campaign is one of the most sought after not just because of all the people they know, but because the people they know I think find Joe and Kelly extremely credible and extremely plugged in to what’s happening in their home state,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican political operative who is unaffiliated with either campaign.

“And so if you’re a donor outside of Kentucky and you’re not paying as close attention, for instance, to our upcoming governor’s race, but Joe Craft and Kelly Knight call you and say, ‘Let me tell you why this is important,’ then they’re going to listen and those people are going to take note of what’s happening in Kentucky.”

Bob Babbage, a lobbyist and former secretary of state who ran for governor in 1995, said Craft and Knight “make a tremendous difference in the numerous places they are involved” on the national, state and local stages.

“Their energy and commitment level becomes contagious,” he said.

Comer’s addition of Craft and Knight to his campaign is “perceptually a very strong move,” said Grayson Smith, another longtime GOP operative and eastern Kentucky businessman. Comer “needs to be able to show that he can raise the money not only to compete in the primary, but then to carry over if he were to win and compete in the general election,” Smith said, which increases interest in Comer’s first campaign fundraising report covering the end of September.

“He needs to follow that up by actually raising the money,” said Smith. “His first campaign finance report will be incredibly important. He needs to be able to show a strong number because not only is Heiner going to be able to self-fund, but I think if you look at some of the people he’s surrounded himself with, he’s not going to have any problems raising money either after the general election.”

Comer and Heiner are the only Republican gubernatorial candidates thus far, but Matt Bevin , who unsuccessfully changed U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP primary this year, and Cathy Bailey , a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia, are considering runs. On the Democratic side, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway is the only gubernatorial hopeful with $704,668 in his campaign account as of June 30. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo are among those mentioned as possible entries, though Stumbo and Mongiardo have said they will delay their decisions until after the Nov. 4 elections.

Fast out of the gate

Comer will waste little time after his campaign kickoff in Tompkinsville, Ky., as he attends a fundraiser at the nearby Glasgow Country Club Tuesday night, with additional fundraisers planned in northern Kentucky Wednesday and Louisville Friday, according to his campaign.

He said Tuesday he expects a well-funded campaign.

“We’ll have enough money,” Comer told reporters after his campaign launch. “I don’t want to say we’ll have the most money because I don’t know how much money one of the candidates is going to put into the race.”

His honorary co-chairs will be vital to that effort. Craft and Knight proved helpful for Comer last year as he sought to retire campaign debt from $100,000 he loaned himself in his 2011 run for agriculture commissioner. He repaid the remaining $40,500 by his year-end campaign finance report in November, and of the $52,600 he raised last year, $1,000 came from Knight while employees of Alliance Coal, a subsidiary of Alliance Resource Partners, contributed $14,000, according to campaign finance records.

Donor fatigue?

A number of pivotal races across Kentucky, headlined by the contentious U.S. Senate race between McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, have squeezed high-dollar donors tight this election cycle, some observers say, citing not only candidates, but also political action committees super PACs and other outside groups vying for contributions.

That could prove difficult for gubernatorial candidates if they contact weary benefactors on the heels of a bruising U.S. Senate race, which is expected to cost as much as $100 million.

“It’s not going to be just for one of the candidates,” Smith said. “I think everyone, both Democrat and Republican, are going to face it. In my experience I know when I’ve been raising money, you can only go back to the well so many times before finally someone says, ‘Hey, give me a break.’”

Babbage, too, says contributors “may want to rest up a little bit” before the gubernatorial primaries heat up.

“They might be tapped out now, but after the holidays when things really get serious, they’ll be back involved,” he said.

Jennings, who advises the super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and nonprofit Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, both of which have been active in the McConnell-Grimes race, said in some respects the donor pools in federal and state races are “a little different,” so soliciting contributions for the 2015 race should prove relatively painless. He noted Conway raised $751,329 since entering the Democratic primary in May, and Comer should “pull in an enthusiastic group of donors for his first report” given Craft and Knight’s role in his campaign.

“Certainly people who have an interest in the governor’s race next year and who are particularly enthusiastic about one candidate or another are not shy about going ahead and getting involved,” Jennings said. “And again, with the contribution limits being so low for the governor’s race, if you’ve written a check for $5,200 to the Senate race, you’re talking about writing just a $1,000 check to the governor’s race. It’s not an equivalent hit to the pocketbook.”

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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