Pockets of power: Where to find GOP votes on the 2015 primary trail

01/03/2015 08:00 AM

Kentuckians who live in key Republican battleground regions better enjoy the post-holiday solace while it lasts. There’s a GOP nomination for governor to secure by May 19, which will require intense campaigning in heavily Republican areas.

Forty-two of Kentucky’s counties in various regions of the state accounted for more than three-quarters of the GOP electorate in the past two gubernatorial primaries, with each receiving at least 71 percent of their vote totals from these areas, according to a Pure Politics analysis.

While Jefferson and four surrounding counties provided a quarter of voters in the 2007 and 2011 GOP primaries, performance in a 16-county region in south-central Kentucky’s Old 5th Congressional District signaled primary success for former Gov. Ernie Fletcher and former Senate President David Williams.

As James Comer, Hal Heiner and anyone else who files for governor by the Jan. 27 deadline jockey for support within the party’s base en route to the May 19 primary, their roads to the GOP nomination will undoubtedly run through the Old 5th, Louisville, northern and central Kentucky, and a few Republican-heavy counties to the west.

And if recent elections are any indication, the candidates should hope for some home-field advantages as GOP voters hit the polls in less than five months.

Williams, of Burkesville, and running mate Richie Farmer, a two-term agriculture commissioner and former University of Kentucky basketball player from Manchester, won the 16-county Old 5th with 70 percent of the Republican vote in 2011. That was the only region the slate won en route to a narrower-than-expected 10-point primary win, according to the Pure Politics analysis.

In 2007, Fletcher, of Lexington, and Murray businessman Robbie Rudolph carried a 10-county central Kentucky block with 60.5 percent of the vote, though the incumbent’s ticket won other regions in its nearly 14-point primary victory, the data show.

This year, the party’s two prominent gubernatorial candidates happen to come from the most influential pockets of GOP voters. Comer, the first-term agriculture commissioner from Tompkinsville, carried the Republican stronghold of the Old 5th in his only statewide primary in 2011 with 83.4 percent of the vote. Heiner, a Louisville real estate developer who has run a largely self-funded campaign thus far, won Jefferson County’s 2010 mayoral primary with 67.5 percent support in a higher turnout race.

Senate President Robert Stivers said it’s natural to look for candidates to perform well in familiar territory.

“You would expect there to be an advantage from a geographic standpoint from where that person comes from,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “Then it becomes, I think, a question of who can convey a message by raising monies, getting an effective message out and having some type of a turnout campaign to win a primary.”

Other entrants — such as former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott of Pikeville, who resigned his seat on the bench Friday, or unsuccessful 2014 U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin of Louisville — could change the political arithmetic if they launch gubernatorial bids.

For now, here’s a breakdown of how Republican voters in select areas shaped the past two gubernatorial primaries:

OLD 5TH: Pulaski, Laurel, Whitley, Monroe, Russell, Clinton, Wayne, Adair, Cumberland, Taylor, Casey, Rockcastle, Clay, Jackson, Knox and Bell counties

One of the state’s Republican strongholds, the 16 Old 5th counties accounted for 19.7 percent of the vote in 2011’s gubernatorial primary and 19 percent in 2007. Carrying these south-central Kentucky counties is typically a good omen, with Fletcher and Williams comfortably winning the region by 24 and 47 points in 2007 and 2011, respectively.

Comer dominated the 16-county region in his lone statewide primary in 2011, garnering 83.4 percent of the vote. But that was before Comer called for an audit of the Department of Agriculture once he took office, an early step in Farmer’s downfall.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said the Old 5th will have “outsized importance” in selecting the party’s gubernatorial nominee this year. He told Pure Politics he will not endorse a candidate in the primary. Both Comer and Heiner have made regular stops in the Old 5th, underscoring the region’s significance in Republican politics.

Stivers, who also plans to stay out of gubernatorial primary politics, said the Republican-heavy counties in south-central Kentucky will be vital as part of each campaign’s strategy between now and May 19.

“It’s kind of like a single-elimination baseball tournament,” said Stivers, who entertained a bid for attorney general in 2003. “You’ve got to win the first one before you get to the championship, and so you’ve got to target those places where, as I will say often, to pick apples you’ve got to go to the apple orchard. Those areas are the apple orchard of a Republican primary.”

LOUISVILLE: Jefferson, Oldham, Bullitt, Shelby and Spencer counties

When Republicans voted in the past two primaries, a quarter of the electorate came from the Louisville area.

In fact, Jefferson County’s GOP voters cast 40,191 ballots in the 2007 primary, 1,679 votes more than the 16-county Old 5th’s total. The region nearly surpassed the south-central vote again in 2011, falling 2,620 ballots short.

But Jefferson and surrounding counties have, more than anything, only hampered the previous pair of Republican gubernatorial nominees’ overall margins.

Former Congresswoman Anne Northup of Louisville received about 45 percent of her vote total in the Louisville area in 2007, carrying all five counties with 64 percent of the vote in all. Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw, who finished third in the 2011 primary, narrowly carried her home county with 35 percent of the vote, but her campaign didn’t see a residual bump in the four surrounding counties. State Rep.-elect Phil Moffett of Louisville, the runner-up in 2011, won the region by 4 points, part of his success in Kentucky’s “golden triangle” that year.

“The influence is increasing, it looks like, from election to election, and particularly for Republicans,” said former Jefferson County GOP Chairman Jack Richardson IV. “This particular area is pretty organized.”

Heiner has an early advantage in name recognition in the Louisville area after finishing a close second to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in Jefferson County’s 2010 mayoral race, Richardson said.

Comer, meanwhile, won the 2011 Republican primary for agriculture commissioner with two-thirds of the vote overall and fared better elsewhere in the state than in the five-county Jefferson County region, which he sill won with 55.4 percent of the vote. Comer was running against Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, who hailed from that region.

This time, Comer’s Louisville-centric jabs at Heiner may hurt his appeal to the electorate, Richardson said, but Comer has tried to gain a foothold in the region, counting Northup among those who have endorsed him.

Still, Richardson called Comer’s remarks “self-defeating” and “counterproductive.”

“If a candidate such as Jamie Comer goes around speaking negative about Louisville and the surrounding areas simply because he’s from out in the state, then he’s not going to be necessarily received as well in this area,” Richardson said. “And that’s not very wise of him to do considering the fact that 25 percent of his vote is going to come from here.”

“My advice to any Republican candidate is if you’re going to run for office, don’t be divisive with regards to regions of the state,” he continued. “We’re all important to each other and that’s how a candidate, at least a Republican, needs to run for office.”

NORTHERN KENTUCKY: Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties

Ten percent of the state’s registered Republicans live in Kentucky’s three northernmost counties, but those registration figures haven’t translated to higher turnouts in the past two gubernatorial primaries.

When Fletcher fended off a challenge from his former Washington colleague Northup in 2007, 19.8 percent of Kentucky’s Republican voters cast ballots in the primary. In northern Kentucky that year, just 12.7 percent of registered Republicans hit the polls. Similarly, 9.2 percent of northern Kentucky Republicans voted in 2011’s gubernatorial primary, trailing the statewide turnout by 3.9 percentage points.

Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state, said the region’s tepid enthusiasm can be traced in part to a lack of buzz surrounding gubernatorial primaries. Cincinnati-based news outlets typically don’t cover Kentucky politics, so it’s more difficult, not to mention costly, to boost name ID in the northern counties, he noted.

“Earned media opportunities are few and far between, and paid media is tough because it’s a big region,” Grayson said. “If you try to buy broadcast, it’s a very inefficient buy when you’re looking at Republican voters in primaries.”

Comer will likely rely on his running mate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, to help draw northern Kentucky Republicans to the polls as well as earned media, Grayson said. He expects turnout in the region will be closer to 2007’s gubernatorial primary based on the amount of interest in the Comer-McDaniel slate he’s gleaned from some in northern Kentucky.

“I’ve heard, anecdotally anyway, there’s a lot of interest in that ticket, and nothing against Commissioner Comer, but a lot of it’s generated by Chris, by having the local guy on the ticket,” Grayson said.

Money, however, can be an equalizer in boosting a candidate’s brand, Grayson said.

He recalled U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie’s surprise victory over two better known candidates — former state Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington of Fort Wright and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore — in the 2012 Republican primary. Massie, R-Garrison, ultimately earned more than half of his 19,689 votes in the three northernmost counties, carrying Boone and Campbell counties and finishing second in Kenton. About 20 percent of northern Kentucky’s Republicans voted in that primary.

“Nobody knew who Thomas Massie was when he ran in that primary in northern Kentucky, and he had a lot of money and was able to put out his brand,” Grayson said.

CENTRAL KENTUCKY: Fayette, Madison, Jessamine, Franklin, Scott, Clark, Woodford, Anderson, Mercer and Boyle counties

McDaniel won’t be the only lieutenant governor candidate looking to have a regional influence.

K.C. Crosbie, Heiner’s running mate and a former member of the nonpartisan Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, hasn’t faced a Republican-only electorate, but in her 2-point loss to Treasurer Todd Hollenbach in 2011, Crosbie beat the Democratic incumbent in eight of the 10 central Kentucky counties, losing only Anderson and Franklin counties.

“Would you expect a greater turnout in Fayette County with a K.C. Crosbie? Would you expect a greater turnout in northern Kentucky with a Chris McDaniel because there is a local flavor to it?” asked Stivers, the Senate president. “You would hope, if you’re the candidates, that that’s what would happen and that it would be substantial enough to have a serious impact on a primary election.”

Richardson, the former Jefferson County GOP chairman, said No. 2 candidates typically haven’t galvanized voters in their home areas.

“I don’t think the lieutenant governor pick has really affected or influenced the election one way or the other in any election,” he said.

The central Kentucky region has provided about 16 percent of the overall vote in 2011 and 2007 gubernatorial primaries. Fletcher found about a fifth of his final tally in central Kentucky after he carried the region with 60 percent of the vote in 2007. Moffett completed a “golden triangle” hat trick with his 18-point win in the region four years later.

ET CETERA: Warren, Hardin, McCracken, Daviess, Grayson, Pike, Christian and Barren counties

Although not a contiguous block of counties, gubernatorial candidates can’t ignore the individual spheres of influence in GOP politics.

These eight, mostly western counties have greater concentrations of Republican voters, particularly Warren, Hardin, Daviess and McCracken counties, which accounted for about 69 percent of this loosely affiliated category’s overall tally in the 2007 and 2011 GOP primaries.

Plus, there’s another example of home cooking in Kentucky politics in this conglomeration of counties. Paducah businessman Billy Harper carried McCracken County with 58 percent of the vote in 2007’s Republican gubernatorial primary.

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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