This article first appeared in the May 6, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
Notes taken between races on the First Saturday in May…
With two weeks to go in Kentucky’s gubernatorial primary, three Republican horses are running neck and neck and one failed to menace. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin are running a too-close-to-call race on a sloppy track. Former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott trails badly against better competition.
Public polling has been sporadic, but rumors of private polling are flying faster than did Victor Espinoza’s “luckiest Mexican on Earth” quote around the Internet after his thrilling ride aboard Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah. Most political observers seem to believe that Comer trails Heiner and Bevin by half-a-length in the homestretch. What is less clear is whether Heiner leads Bevin, or if Bevin, coming off a Grade I stakes race in 2014 in which he was outclassed by the Secretariat of Kentucky politics – Mitch McConnell – actually has his nose in front.
All three have a chance to be the Republican nominee for governor, a title worth having in this political environment. Here’s a tip sheet before heading to the betting window:
- Hal Heiner. Current Odds: 3-1. Ridden by veteran jockey Kyle Robertson, Heiner is a slight favorite to edge out the competition on May 19. Why he won: Heiner, the Spend A Buck of this derby, deployed over $5 million on television ads and a metric-driven grassroots effort with professional operatives spread across Kentucky that overwhelmed his opponents. Heiner reached into his personal feedbag for some last minute oats that provided late speed, and his outside Super PAC hurt Comer and Bevin just enough. Why he lost: Some horses respond to being challenged, and some don’t. A frequent criticism of Heiner is that he doesn’t know how to take a punch, or, worse, throw one. Blows from both Comer and Bevin found their mark, and Heiner failed to respond to the whip. While he led by several lengths at the top of the stretch, this colt couldn’t handle a little dirt in his eye. Next time out, his trainers should use blinkers.
- Matt Bevin. Current Odds: 4-1. A self-proclaimed Tea Partier who was laughed off the track in his previous effort, Bevin has improved this time around through a more focused message and polished public presence. If the GOP nominates him it will take a Genuine Risk on this divisive runner. Why he won: As Heiner and Comer bumped each other down the stretch, Bevin staked out a lane on the inside rail and his competitors forgot he was there until it was too late. His well-produced direct mail made him appear to be a mainstream conservative, curing a bruise from his previous race. Comer and Heiner looked like standard-issue politicians while Bevin claimed the “conservative businessman outsider” label, a valuable piece of track in a GOP primary. Why he lost: This horsenever recovered from his previous race and was a step slow. Bevin’s erratic behavior in 2014 and his habit of opposing Republicans running for President and U.S. Senate cost him with voters who wanted a consistent conservative in the governor’s mansion. Outside groups moved in for the kill late, with GOP donors believing Bevin to be the weakest general election candidate. You can’t make it up as you go at this level.
- James Comer. Current Odds: 9-2. A Charismatic horse with Street Sense, Comer has endured a strange trip. But he’s in the thick of it now as no other horse has taken control. Why he won: Loyalty matters in a low turnout primary, and Comer’s grassroots supporters packed the infield on Derby Day to cheer him on. His Super PAC, despite not attacking his opponents, offered just enough positive cover to pull him across the finish line. Republican voters decided that Comer’s rural roots contrasted best against urban liberal Jack Conway, who waits in the paddock. Why he lost: Overwhelmed by Heiner’s spending and Bevin’s solid appearances at debates and Lincoln Day Dinners, the morning line favorite heads to the barn having learned a valuable lesson about money in politics. A whisper campaign against him burst into the public domain late raising doubts about whether there is more to the story than we know. GOP voters decided a businessman outsider instead of a Frankfort insider is the party’s best bet. Comer’s first stakes raceshows he needed another allowance start under his belt before stepping up in class.
- Will T. Scott. Current Odds: 99-1. This horse once jumped out of an airplane for attention, proving this claimer was better suited for the Derby Festival Pegasus Parade than the Run for the Roses. Why he won: Shockingly, Comer, Heiner, and Bevin all incorrectly filled out their candidacy papers, delighting Chief Steward Allison Grimes as she filed an inquiry that disqualified all three. Why he lost: Zebras don’t win stakes races.
A record crowd of just over 170-thousand attended the Kentucky Derby this past weekend, and that’s where we’ll set the over/under bet for total raw turnout in the GOP primary. Who will be Kentucky’s next Bold Ruler? Stay tuned.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.