With primary field far from set, an early look at who's left as potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates

10/11/2014 06:40 PM

Election Day is 24 days away, and Nov. 4 will be a key date for a number of potential gubernatorial candidates who’ve remained on the sidelines during a contentious U.S. Senate campaign and several state House races that will decide control of the chamber. Pure Politics recently spoke to a number of Democratic political observers for their thoughts on possible candidates in 2015.

Since entering next year’s gubernatorial election in early May, Attorney General Jack Conway has taken advantage of his status as the lone Democrat in the race. He’s raised more than $1.1 million for his slate with House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly and netted endorsements from three of the most prominent Democrats in Kentucky politics in U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford and former state Auditor Crit Luallen.

But don’t expect that early momentum — and Conway’s pledge to ramp up his campaign after the fall elections — to deter fellow Democrats from entering next year’s gubernatorial primary.

“The notion that this is going to scare people off and it’s going to be a one-man race is wrong,” said Jim Cauley, a Democratic consultant who was President Barack Obama’s Senate campaign manager in 2004 and led Gov. Steve Beshear’s campaign in 2007. “… I think you’ll have a minimum of three, possibly five slates. Steve Beshear did not get in that race until Dec. 19. If you had asked anybody any time in October of 2006 if Steve Beshear would be your next governor, I think you would’ve gotten a hearty laugh, so I don’t know, maybe we’ve not even heard of the next governor.”

Still, Conway’s early start has given him an early fundraising edge that will only grow as other Democrats mull a potential gubernatorial run and build a campaign from the ground up.

“I would say there probably will be somebody who gets in the race, but again, I think they’re at a disadvantage by waiting — a financial disadvantage,” said Sherman Brown, who worked on Beshear’s financial staff during the 2007 campaign and ascended to deputy campaign manager for the governor’s 2011 re-election bid.

While Conway has been busy on the fundraising circuit this year, he hasn’t been nearly as busy as…

Alison Lundergan Grimes

Granted, a potential Grimes for governor discussion is premature since she’s in the throes of a contentious U.S. Senate campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Democratic political observers say they’ve heard more about a potential 2015 run for Grimes from their counterparts in the GOP.

Jonathan Miller, a former two-term Democratic state treasurer who mounted a gubernatorial campaign in 2007, called such talk “wishful thinking from Republicans.”

Her race has been the focus of Kentucky politics for more than a year, with some potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates staying out of the 2015 race in deference to her campaign. But what will Grimes do if she loses her bid to deny McConnell a sixth term? She’s a young politician at 35 and has proven herself a formidable fundraiser after raising more than $11 million and counting since she launched her Senate campaign in July 2013.

Although Democratic observers remain bullish on her chances to unseat McConnell, a key factor will determine whether she enters the governor’s race should she lose Nov. 4: Does she want to immediately jump back on the trail after a grueling, high-profile campaign?

“When you think about how many millions of dollars that have been spent on name ID, that would make her strong, again, no matter what she decides to do, and she’ll be fine if she decides that,” Brown said. “The thing that I think is difficult is coming off of 18 months or however many months it’ll be on the road. That’s hard. That’s very hard on a person, and the governor’s race is not going to be easy.”

Miller, who is supporting Conway’s gubernatorial bid, said he doesn’t see Grimes, should McConnell win re-election, entering the governor’s race on the heels of “one of the most high-profile, difficult races in the country.” Conway has done well in locking up early Democratic support, he said, and launching a gubernatorial bid fresh off a bruising U.S. Senate race would be difficult for anyone.

“It’s in the realm of possibility. You can do it, but from a personal standpoint it is grueling,” Miller said. “… From a human standpoint it is so, so grueling and so difficult, and it would be very, very difficult to then jump out the next day, which she’d have to do, and then to get into the governor’s race, a primary, and if she gets through the primary, then you’re going to have an extremely difficult general.”

Win or lose, Grimes will impact next year’s gubernatorial primary. Cauley said a U.S. Sen. Alison Lundergan Grimes will have some input in the 2015 Democratic field as well as a robust campaign apparatus that will have to “land somewhere.” That infrastructure could benefit someone close to Grimes’ father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, such as…

House Speaker Greg Stumbo

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has a wealth of political experience in Kentucky, serving in the state House from 1981 until 2003, when he was elected attorney general, and again starting in 2008. He’s no stranger to gubernatorial politics as well, running as a lieutenant governor candidate alongside Bruce Lunsford in 2007.

Observers say Stumbo’s experience in the General Assembly and as a statewide candidate will help if he decides to enter next year’s Democratic primary, a decision he’s said will come if Democrats hold control of the House after the fall elections and he’s re-elected speaker.

“I don’t think there’s a corner of the state he hasn’t been to and doesn’t know folks, so he starts off with kind of a built-in network already of legislators and friends that he’s made over the last couple decades,” Brown said. “He also has been raising money for the caucus, so he knows money people as well.”

Although a decision may not come for months, Cauley said contacts in western Kentucky who’ve talked with Stumbo told him the speaker has advised politicos to “keep their powder dry, so obviously he’s considering it.”

The question for Stumbo is whether he can mount a gubernatorial bid while leading the House’s legislative agenda, Miller said. Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, attempted the feat twice while serving as speaker in 2003 and 2007, finishing second and fourth, respectively, in the Democratic primary.

“I can’t speak for Greg Stumbo, but my guess is being House speaker is probably the second or third most important job in the state, and I think he loves doing it and in the end, he’ll focus his attention on that as opposed to having to jump right away in January to run in a primary for governor, which would be very distracting if you’re trying to lead the state legislature through the House.”

Should Stumbo enter the primary, he may have to fend off fellow eastern Kentuckian…

Daniel Mongiardo

Mongiardo, an ear, nose and throat doctor, has maintained a low profile since he lost to Conway in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary, but he and Stumbo are the two names mentioned most as potential gubernatorial candidates within political circles, observers say.

The Hazard Democrat served in the state Senate from 2001 until 2007, when he was elected lieutenant governor on a slate with Beshear. He’s also mounted two U.S. Senate campaigns, losing to Conway in the primary in 2010 and former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning in the 2004 general election. Conway edged Mongiardo by more than 4,000 votes and a margin less than 1 percent.

Like Stumbo, Mongiardo would appeal to Kentucky’s rural voters, observers say.

“If you set up an urban versus rural race in a two-way, Daniel would be very formidable,” Cauley said. “… Daniel’s never backed up from anything that I’ve watched.”

Mongiardo’s main concern as a candidate comes down to money, observers said. Conway spent nearly $2 million in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary compared to Mongiardo’s $1.4 million, according to federal campaign finance records.

Financial disadvantages can be overcome in a crowded primary field, according to observers.

“Mongiardo was outspent in 2010 in that primary, which came down to a very slim margin,” Brown said. “He plays well in the rural parts of the state.”

But a potential matchup in 2015 will be far different than the Conway-Mongiardo race in 2010, particularly with a shortened election calendar should Mongiardo enter the gubernatorial field.

“This will be a much shorter race, which I think gives the benefit to Conway because Daniel relied so much on the ground and working, getting around and talking to people,” Brown said. “It’ll be just such a short timeframe.”

Cauley added, “His problem always has been and always will be is that he gets outspent. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to talk to the voters and do all that stuff.”

Mongiardo isn’t the only former officeholder mentioned as a possible candidate. Another name is…

Ben Chandler

Chandler lost his seat in Congress, which he’d held since 2004, to freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in 2012 and became chairman of the Kentucky Humanities Council last year. His name surfaced as a potential gubernatorial contender earlier this year, but the rumor mill has quieted in recent months on a possible candidacy.

Chandler’s strength as a politician lies in his named identification — he’s a former state auditor, two-term attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2003 — and his legacy as the grandson of former Democratic Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, observers say.

Cauley predicted that Chandler’s name ID would rival Conway’s if he decided to enter the race.

“Ben’s question would be one, does he have the stomach to go ask people for money,” he said, noting Chandler wouldn’t need as much money as a gubernatorial candidate with his name ID. “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Ben in a year, maybe two. Does he want to go and ask for money, hit the rubber chicken circuit and raise the money? I don’t know.”

While recognition wouldn’t be an issue for Chandler, observers say it would be for…

Luther Deaton

Like Chandler, Deaton, president of Central Bank, was mentioned earlier this year as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Cauley, in fact, said he had lunch with the Lexington banking executive this spring to discuss the race.

Deaton would bring financial resources and a business background to the race, but starting off with such low name ID at this point may prove problematic, Miller said.

“I think that a lot people think the world of Luther, as do I, and think he’d be a great governor, but in terms of the political calculus, it would be very difficult to beat a Jack Conway,” he said.

But should Deaton decide to throw his name in the gubernatorial hat, Cauley said called him “a formidable guy” given his deep pockets.

“You can sit down and give me five different slates, and we could sit down and create a strategy and a path to winning the nomination,” he said. “Is there a path for him? Probably. … With resources you can do a lot of things, and Luther would have resources.”

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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