By: Scott Jennings
This article first appeared in the March 4, 2015 edition of the Courier-Journal.
The race to become the Republican nominee for Kentucky governor is in full-swing, with the four tickets appearing at Lincoln Day Dinners, rolling our platforms, and raising funds.
Each of the four has also assembled a team of staff and consultants, people typically unknown to the average voter but who have a profound impact on donor confidence and a candidate’s image. Two of the tickets (Comer/McDaniel and Heiner/Crosbie) have already changed campaign managers, but they are also the only two building a team formidable enough to win in November.
Here is a peek at the political operatives behind Kentucky’s GOP gubernatorial tickets:
Hal Heiner – His operation is run by Kyle Robertson, an experienced operative who previously managed campaigns for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Indiana Governor Mike Pence. Robertson, 37, originally from Northern Kentucky, took over for Joe Burgan who left the campaign late last year. Robertson has assembled a staff experienced in churning out “voter contact,” a term used by campaign operatives to describe volunteer activities like knocking on doors and making phone calls. That effort is led by political director Rob Secaur, a Northern Kentuckian who served numerous grassroots roles in the last two campaign cycles. Robertson and Secaur have hired several experienced staffers with granular grassroots experience, investing heavily in a modern-day voter turnout operation that could make the difference in a close race.
Kim Alfano returns as Heiner’s ad maker, also her job in his 2010 run for Louisville Mayor. She has consulted for Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. The pollsters are Tony Fabrizio and David Lee, experienced GOP hands. The direct mail and digital presence is run by Michael Clingaman, a Louisville native and former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Kentucky, of the Stoneridge Group.
James Comer – Like Heiner, Comer shook up his campaign last fall by replacing longtime advisor and campaign manager Holly Harris with Edwin King, 31, who previously worked for Comer’s running mate Chris McDaniel’s 2012 campaign for state Senate. King previously held staff jobs for U.S. Senators Jim Bunning and Rand Paul. Helping King are Corey Bridges, who worked on Comer’s 2011 agriculture commissioner’s race before joining his staff at the Department, and Caroline Cash, a well-liked western Kentucky GOP activist from Fancy Farm. Bridges is the Grassroots Director and Cash is handling fundraising.
Comer boasts perhaps the two most well-known consultants in the race. His ad maker is Jon Downs, a partner at FP1 Strategies in Washington D.C. Downs is widely regarded as one of the most talented video magicians in the business and was just hired to make ads for Jeb Bush. Operatives involved with the 2012 GOP presidential primary still marvel at Downs’s work for Ron Paul’s campaign, especially his devastating attacks on Newt Gingrich. While Heiner is winning the quantity battle on delivering video content, Comer is winning on the quality front.
Comer’s pollster is Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies, a well-known firm with heavy Kentucky experience. Blizzard and his partner Neil Newhouse have worked for Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, the Super PAC that supported U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s reelection in 2014 (author’s note – I was a consultant to KSL as well), Congressman Andy Barr and the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Will T. Scott – The Scott campaign is managed by Tea Party activist David Adams, a polarizing figure in Republican circles. Adams has been involved in various campaigns over the years, including Phil Moffett’s 2011 gubernatorial run, Rand Paul’s 2010 U.S. Senate primary (he was replaced by Jesse Benton for the general election), and other local races. Most recently, Adams was seen hanging around Matt Bevin’s campaign against McConnell in the 2014 primary for U.S. Senate. He is also suing Governor Steve Beshear over implementation of Obamacare in Kentucky.
The only other consultant mentioned by Adams is Ray Stewart, a longtime political and media specialist in Eastern Kentucky known for making ads for local officials that sometimes “push the envelope” and are “outrageously negative,” according to Courier-Journal columnist and UK professor Al Cross. It remains to be seen whether Scott will have enough money to deliver any of Stewart’s product.
Matt Bevin – The last entrant into the race appears to have hired an operative named Ben Hartman as his campaign manager, last seen in Kansas managing the losing effort of Tea Party Senate candidate Milton Wolf against U.S. Senator Pat Roberts in the 2014 primary. Wolf’s campaign was supported by the same national groups who backed Bevin over McConnell. It is unclear if other consultants have been hired, but Bevin has apparently opened a few campaign offices and has been seen at events with field staffers. I emailed Hartman with a request for information for this column but he did not respond. He did, however, start following me on Twitter. Bevin has issued a policy platform, notable for flip-flopping his position on cockfighting (he’s against it now).
As we know in Kentucky, jockeys matter in horse races. Which of these political equestrians will have their horse crossing the finish line first on May 19th? Time will tell.
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. The online version of this column contains hyperlinked citations.