By Scott Jennings
This article first appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of the Courier-Journal.
With two months left in Kentucky’s GOP gubernatorial primary, it appears that Louisville businessman Hal Heiner has opened a slight lead over Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, tea party candidate Matt Bevin, and former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott. An early-March poll commissioned by several Kentucky media outlets (including the Courier-Journal) found Heiner with 28 percent, Comer and Bevin with 20 percent, and Scott at 8 percent.
Simply put, this is the power of advertising. Heiner is using his campaign’s superior financial resources to steadily build up his image as a conservative outsider-businessman, a message that tests well among GOP primary voters.
Previous surveys had consistently shown Comer with a small lead over the field. The movement in the polling is directly attributable to voters seeing more information about Heiner, who by the end of this week will have spent about $1.23 million in 2015 on television ads against less than $100-thousand for Comer, according to GOP media buying sources. Bevin and Scott have not yet advertised.
Heiner’s upward movement does not necessarily mean Comer’s image is degrading; it simply means that Heiner is communicating more broadly and that voters seem to like his message. There is still time for Comer to begin his own full-scale advertising campaign to offer his argument for the GOP nomination. This applies to Bevin as well. Scott is probably too far back to mount a meaningful challenge.
This race remains a tossup and could be prone to polling volatility in the weeks ahead, particularly given the high number of undecided voters. The answers to these questions will determine who wins:
- How much money will Comer ultimately put on the air? It is clear that Heiner is going to outspend Comer, but just how many gross ratings points (a measurement of how many people see a TV ad) can Comer buy before the May 19th primary? While Comer may not achieve parity with Heiner on TV, an effective spending strategy with sharp ads can boost Comer’s name enough to catch up.
- Will any Super PAC’s emerge to help these candidates? For months there have been rumblings of Super PAC’s materializing for both Comer and Heiner, but nothing has happened so far. Super PAC’s, which can take unlimited contributions from donors, can be a powerful force in a gubernatorial race because of Kentucky’s ridiculously low contribution limits of $1,000 per person. This is less important for Heiner, who is already self-funding his campaign with unlimited personal contributions. For Comer, who cannot self-fund, outside intervention will determine whether his overall advertising expenditure comes anywhere near Heiner’s.
- Can Bevin fund his campaign this time around? A true mystery is how much Bevin will donate to his own campaign, and whether any of the national tea party groups that helped him in the 2014 U.S. Senate primary will come back to Kentucky. In 2014, Bevin spent about $5.3 million ($1.6 million of his own money) and had considerable resources tossed in by outside groups. Will Bevin ante up again? Do the national tea party groups still care about him? Bevin is the only other candidate besides Heiner who has had meaningful money spent on his own name recently, to which he owes his current standing in the polls. It won’t last, however, if Heiner and Comer outspend him this time around.
- Which candidate launches the first attack, and against who? So far, none of the paid advertising has featured candidate-on-candidate violence. But with Heiner opening a bit of a lead, will Comer feel compelled to launch attacks? Will Heiner go for a knockout blow against Comer or Bevin, or let his positive message ride? One criticism of Heiner in his close loss in Louisville’s 2010 mayoral contest was his resistance to attacking eventual winner Greg Fischer. Does Bevin believe he can take votes from Heiner or Comer by contrasting with either? Will Super PAC’s carry the negative freight, allowing the candidates to stay positive? Because candidates and independent groups cannot coordinate, the campaigns must prepare multiple strategies to react to salvos launched from the outside.
- What role will direct mail and ground game activities play? While TV ads get most of the attention, do not underestimate the power of effectively targeted direct mail and grassroots activities. Direct mailers are very efficient, as campaigns can target them to the most likely voters (versus TV and radio ads, which are seen and heard by thousands of non-voters). Heiner appears to be curing a failing common to self-funded campaigns—believing that TV ads alone are enough to win—by investing in a well-staffed “get-out-the-vote” effort. Comer, through tireless campaigning, has built a large network of support among well-known local GOP activists and officials, and he needs that carefully cultivated organization to combat being outspent. Bevin has some activity on the ground in Northern Kentucky, which traditionally suffers from low-turnout in state elections.
The candidates next report their financial positions on April 22. We’ll know then which slates have the resources to make a move in the homestretch.
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.