Starting gun fired in GOP gubernatorial primary as polls closed Tuesday

11/05/2014 09:19 PM

Let the 2015 campaign season begin.

After working to flip control of the state House this election cycle, Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial candidates are moving their attention to their own bids for higher office next year.

Louisville businessman Hal Heiner, the first entrant in the GOP primary field in March, said during his campaign will take “an entirely new direction” now that Tuesday’s elections are in the rearview mirror. Heiner has been busy introducing himself to voters, but he held off on personal fundraising events in deference to Republican legislative candidates as they fought for nine seats to overcome a 54-46 Democrat majority in the state House.

“Certainly fundraising will pickup, and obviously the intensity of the campaign will pickup as well,” Heiner told Pure Politics at the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Election Night event in Louisville. “The lights will come on the gubernatorial contest, we feel like, in early January, and I’m looking, hoping for a very robust, policy-focused race.”

Heiner, who has positioned himself as a Frankfort outsider, hopes to have 60 forums throughout the gubernatorial campaign so all candidates can share their visions for Kentucky. He said he’s talked to an official in Paducah about potentially hosting the first such forum.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, another candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary, saw Tuesday’s result, in which U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bested Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by a 15-point spread, as a repudiation against the Democratic Party’s policies and a harbinger of things to come for other Republicans seeking statewide office.

“People want change,” he said at RPK’s Election Night party. “They’re serious about electing leaders that will be efficient with their tax dollars that view the government as being too big and we need to downsize the government on all levels, so I think it was a good indicator tonight that Republicans are going to be doing well in Kentucky for many years to come.”

Comer said he’s confident in his positioning early in the 2015 campaign, having launched his bid in early September.

The past seven weeks have shown his campaign’s organization as well as his ability to generate money as a gubernatorial candidate.

Comer raised $534,556 in his first fundraising quarter with $477,656 on hand, although he trails Heiner, who has loaned his candidacy $4.2 million, in campaign cash. The Louisville Republican had $3.5 million on hand at the end of this year’s third fundraising quarter, which ended Sept. 30.

“The amazing thing about my organization is we’ve accomplished all this in seven weeks with essentially one hand tied behind my back because half my organization’s been focused on the McConnell race and local race,” Comer said.

Both candidates’ efforts to wrest control of the Kentucky House from Democratic hands failed to reach fruition. Democrats retained their 54-46 majority in Tuesday’s elections.

Heiner’s super PAC, New Direction Kentucky, dumped $232,771 in seven contested House races, but only two Republicans the group backed — James Tipton of Taylorsville, who won the 53rd House District open, and David Hale of Wellington, who bested incumbent Democratic Rep. Richard Henderson of Mt. Sterling — will join the General Assembly next year. New Direction Kentucky spent $12,846, or 5.5 percent of its total expenditures, on the two successful candidates.

Democrats’ retention of majority control “doesn’t affect the governor’s race,” Heiner said, but “it definitely means that we need somebody with new ideas for Kentucky because the leadership we’ve had in the past hasn’t been able to solve the difficulties that we face today.”

“So I think we’ll see in the governor’s race a decision by the citizens of Kentucky, it’s time for somebody from outside Frankfort,” he said.

Comer, too, said the GOP’s inability to win a majority isn’t a negative sign for the party. It’s difficult to unseat a number of incumbents — Republicans needed to win nine seats after redistricting and retirements left them with nine incumbents on the ballot — but Comer expects conservative trends will eventually turn Kentucky’s House red.

“It’s eminent that Kentucky will have a Republican House of Representatives,” he said. “I wish it could’ve been tonight, but my hat’s off to the House Democrats and Greg Stumbo. They won again, so we’re going to have to focus on nominating and electing a Republican governor that has a record of achievement of working across the aisle.”

Though the two have sparred some in veiled shots on the campaign trail and in press releases, neither candidate spoke ill of the the other Tuesday night.

But Comer took a parting shot at Grimes when asked whether the Democrat-controlled House would sour the changes of a Republican winning next year’s governor’s race. McConnell’s double-digit win caught him by surprise, and he said the margin effectively removes her from the gubernatorial conversation.

“She so underperformed tonight that I don’t think her name will even be relevant in the governor’s race anymore,” Comer said.

And he’s already looking ahead to a potential matchup against Attorney General Jack Conway, the lone Democrat in the gubernatorial field. He said he hopes to see his name against Conway’s on the 2015 ballot.

“I’m for Jack in the Democrat primary,” Comer said. “I say that a lot as a joke around the state, but I believe Jack Conway symbolizes everything that the Democrat Party stands for just like President Obama symbolizes everything that the Democrat Party stands for.”

Interviews by Ryan Alessi at the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Election Night event Tuesday.

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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