Way-too-early look at 2019: Four emerging as most likely Democratic gubernatorial candidates

05/06/2017 07:35 AM

As the entrants in this year’s Kentucky Derby prepare to take their places at the starting gate, another race two years away is slowly taking shape behind the scenes.

A number of Democrats are exploring their political options ahead of the 2019 gubernatorial election, and consultants and operatives say they expect a wide-open field for the Democratic primary four years after former Attorney General Jack Conway boxed top-tier opposition out of that year’s May contest.

It would be the first heavily contested primary on the Democratic side since 2007.

Some expect a few Democrats will ultimately enter the 2019 gubernatorial primary while others say as many as 10 could file, with sources generally agreeing on four possible contenders who stand ahead of the field at this point: Attorney General Andy Beshear, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and former state Auditor Adam Edelen.

All have run statewide and have developed pockets of support in different areas, and each has different strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, say Democratic sources, some of whom predicted that one or two might formally announce gubernatorial bids by summer’s end.

Other names mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates include former House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Sannie Overly, House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and Lexington banker Luther Deaton, among others.

“I think any serious campaign for the governor’s mansion on the Democratic side will have to already be up and running at full functionality well before the ’18 general election,” Democratic strategist Jared Smith told Pure Politics.

“They’re not going to have information on the 2018 elections to help make their decision,” he added. “They’re going to have to just go ahead and do it and see what happens in 2018, see if the Democrats take a nice chunk of seats back in the (state) House and maybe a seat or two in the (state) Senate or if voters double down on some of these policies that they’ve seen.”

Whether Gray, a wealthy businessman in the construction industry who largely self-funded his failed Senate campaign against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul last year, enters the gubernatorial fray may dictate the decisions of some Democrats eyeing the race.

He hasn’t announced whether he will seek re-election as Lexington’s mayor, and some interviewed say he’s being courted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to mount a bid against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, in the 6th Congressional District.

Democratic consultant Leo Haggerty, who predicted that the Democratic gubernatorial primary would average about $4 million per candidate under newly doubled campaign contribution limits passed this legislative session, said he wouldn’t rule out a Gray congressional run at this point.

“In addition to Mayor Gray’s personal wealth, he also is extremely popular in Fayette County and did better than any recent candidate if not did better than any Democrat ever in Fayette County, and that’s one of the two big counties you’re going to have to win,” Haggerty said, referencing Gray winning 60 percent of the vote in his home county last year despite a nearly 15 point loss to Paul statewide.

“And if he were to get in that governor’s race, then I think anybody whose base is Fayette County is going to have to think twice about it. It’s not saying that he’d keep them out of it, but I think it would give people pause.”

Grimes and Edelen also hail from Lexington, and many expect Edelen, co-founder of the New Kentucky Project, will enter the 2019 gubernatorial contest after passing up a run in 2015.

He lost his re-election campaign to Republican Auditor Mike Harmon in 2015 by 4 points despite a massive fundraising advantage, but Democratic consultant Grace Wise said he’s “in a good place to run for an office like governor.”

“He was kind of blown up on the ballot, but there wasn’t a lot that he could do either way,” she told Pure Politics. “I think his loss was more due to the trend across the ballot. Through his work with the New Kentucky Project and the solar farm in eastern Kentucky, I think he’s kept his name elevated in a good way to set himself up for a run.”

Democratic consultant Matt Wyatt says he sees Edelen as possibly the best general election candidate on his side of the aisle.

“I think he brings a really good combination of urban and rural in how he relates to people, and you’re going to have to have a candidate on the Democratic side that has a reach outside the triangle for any of these races statewide,” Wyatt said, referring to the so-called “golden triangle” of Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky. “You’re going to have to have a candidate who can speak to people out in western and eastern Kentucky as well as be able to speak to the big donors in the triangle.”

Still, Democratic operatives say Edelen lacks the name identifications and organizations that Beshear and Grimes, the only Democrats who hold statewide office, have. Beshear and Grimes also have options beyond the 2019 gubernatorial race — the first-term attorney general could run for a second term while the two-term secretary of state could run for auditor or, if Beshear enters the gubernatorial race, attorney general.

Observers also say Stumbo, who lost his re-election campaign to Republican Rep. Larry Brown last year, could resuscitate his political career in the 2019 gubernatorial contest if his law partner, personal injury attorney John Morgan, runs for governor in Florida next year and wins.

But not everyone is as bullish on the crop of prospective Democratic candidates. Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson dismissed the Democratic bench as a group of “has beens and never will bes.”

“Twenty-nineteen is going to be a steep, uphill battle for any Democrat taking on a Republican incumbent,” he said, referencing first-term GOP Gov. Matt Bevin.

Regardless of who ultimately seeks the Democratic gubernatorial nod in 2019, Democratic strategists and operatives interviewed say they their hope the nominee doesn’t follow Conway’s strategy of focusing on television advertising over grassroots efforts and voter outreach.

“I think they forgot the lesson of ’07,” Haggerty said. “Steve Beshear didn’t raise and spend the most money in the ’07 primary. Bruce Lunsford did. Steve Beshear had enough to effectively advertise, but he also invested heavily, he was the only candidate who had a 120-county organization. He had labor unions organized, he had elected officials organized, he had teachers organized, he had agriculture organized, he had youth organized. There was a large, well-oiled organization reaching out at every level across the state.”


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