Running down-ballot in Kentucky a tedious task, campaign operative says

11/20/2015 10:25 AM

With lower bankrolls, a disengaged electorate and lack of significant media attention, it can be tough to run a statewide campaign in Kentucky if you’re not involved in a top-tier race.

That’s what Tres Watson found waiting for him as he toured the state in 2015 as Agriculture Commissioner-elect Ryan Quarles’ campaign manager.

“When you’re a down-ticket candidate it can sometimes be difficult, you know, getting media out. TV is hard to come by when you’re down ticket, unless you’re paying for it,” Watson said. “Even local newspapers often times would say, ‘Well, just send us a picture with a caption we’ll try to work it in.’”

Quarles won the election Nov. 3 by nearly 200,000 votes, but Watson said that was in large part won through hard work which involved day-after-day campaigning across the state.

It also had a lot to do with a carefully planned strategy.

In the final weeks of the campaign the strategy for Watson became to identify weekly newspapers and make sure Quarles got their attention two weeks before the election.

“Two weeks before Election Day we spent a lot of time in east Kentucky because you have a lot of weekly newspapers out there,” Watson said. “Fortunately in, I think, in 16 or 17 newspapers, Ryan was on the front page of the edition of the newspaper that was sitting on people’s counters when they went to vote. Because it published, went to print and was for sale Thursday before Election Day, and the next edition didn’t go on sale until after Election Day.”

It’s that kind of strategic thinking campaigns employ when faced with the lack of attention in off-cycle elections.

There is a deficit of attention from voters. Of the 3.2 million registered voters in Kentucky only 982,259 cast ballots in the governor’s race — just a 30 percent turnout rate in the election, which historically is below average for the state.

Turnout increases in the state during presidential election years. In 2008, the last time there was an open White House, more than 62 percent of Kentuckians registered to vote turned out. In 2012, that number was 59.7 percent.

As the state historically has voted more conservative in federal elections, members of the GOP have been pushing to move the gubernatorial election cycle in lockstep with the presidential race to drive up turnout. That push has been resisted by the state House of Representatives, which is under Democratic control.

“I think we’ve seen this year voters in this state are now comfortable voting Republican,” Watson said. “I think their default is voting Republican.”

“Moving forward this is a Republican state,” Watson continued. “I’d welcome an election any year; because I think our candidates are going to do fantastic. But yes, exposure wise and electorally we’d probably do better if they were moved to even number years.”


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