This column originally appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By Scott Jennings
Just two weeks remain for Kentucky’s constitutional office candidates to make their case to the voters, and big independent expenditure news Tuesday changed the landscape. The Republican Governor’s Association (RGA), which had already spent $3 million on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin (R) before pulling out on September 28, threw out conventional wisdom of a likely Jack Conway (D) victory when it plunked down another $1.6 million for TV ads. What once was thought lost for the GOP may now be found. Maybe.
Here’s a stab at ranking the races from most likely to yield a Republican victory to least:
Commissioner of Agriculture – Ryan Quarles (R), a State Representative from Scott County, has run a good campaign against Jean-Marie Lawson Spann (D), who faces a complaint that she “violated campaign finance laws by using her corporate-sponsored radio show to promote her campaign,” according to the Associated Press. Spann’s performance at Fancy Farm left many scratching their heads when she said that people who “go to school” aren’t qualified to be agriculture leaders (don’t tell the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture). Kentuckians have voted Republican in this race three consecutive times, and it is likely Quarles becomes the fourth.
State Treasurer – Allison Ball (R), a lawyer from Prestonsburg, faces State Representative Rick Nelson (D) of Middlesboro. This peculiar office has made almost no news since James “Honest Dick” Tate absconded with $100-thousand from the state treasury in 1888. Tate was never heard from again, and, fortunately, we no longer have tobacco sacks full of gold and silver coins laying around for public officials to snatch. Ball, a bankruptcy attorney, might have to put her skills to use as Kentucky faces $30 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
Governor – Until Tuesday, the month of October had not been kind to Bevin. The RGA stopped advertising, Conway and his allies increased their expenditures, and public surveys showed Conway ahead, albeit narrowly. A source who tracks media buying tells me Bevin has been outspent in Western Kentucky 3-to-1 overall and as much as 7-to-1 since the RGA pulled out. The Paducah and Evansville TV markets, where Conway has been crushing Bevin in advertising, have served as a firewall for GOP candidates who won close races (examples: Bunning ’04, McConnell ’08, and Paul ’10). Democratic dominance of Western Kentucky’s airwaves is worrisome since the GOP needs the Central Time Zone to produce a big margin on election night.
That said, Bevin could still prevail and here’s why: the RGA, believing Bevin can win among the likeliest voters in this low turnout election, has come back to potentially save the day. Ads supporting Bevin will air statewide over the final two weeks, including in important Western Kentucky. The RGA believes the Democratic apparatus, having spent most of its $11.5 million on ads attacking Bevin, can’t get Conway over the hump because of the toxic, anti-Obama political environment. Democrats believe Conway remains ahead and argue that even with the RGA’s new money they will still outspend Bevin over the next two weeks.
The Rothenberg/Gonzales Political Report changed its rating to “Tossup/Tilts Democratic” last week, but admitted that a Bevin win “wouldn’t be surprising” given the political atmosphere. That rating was made prior to the RGA’s announcement, which probably puts the race back into the category of pure tossup.
Attorney General – State Senator Whitney Westerfield (R) faces Andy Beshear (D) in a very spirited open seat race. These young candidates are running energetic campaigns boosted by massive independent expenditures. Operatives in both parties have been calling the race a tossup for several weeks. It is a shame there weren’t more debates between these two, as their tilt on KET was among the most interesting of the cycle.
Auditor of Public Accounts – State Representative Mike Harmon (R) is hoping to catch a GOP wave against incumbent Adam Edelen (D), who is preparing a well-crafted advertising blitz to combat his extremely low name identification. Edelen is the favorite, as Harmon has not run a funded campaign to make the case against a second term. The ambitious Edelen, if he prevails, will likely run against U.S. Senator Rand Paul in 2016 or perhaps become the leading Democratic choice for Governor in 2019 if Bevin beats Conway. Edelen’s race is close, but he’s banking on $700-thousand in television ads over the last two weeks to seal a narrow win.
Secretary of State – If Steven Knipper (R) beats incumbent Alison Grimes (D), he can write a thank you letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for damaging her image so badly in 2014 that she wasn’t able to recover. Many Republicans are kicking themselves for not getting into this race, and party leaders wonder what might have been had a GOP candidate run a funded campaign.
Political observers predict low voter turnout, which has ranged widely in recent off-year elections: 1999 (22.2%); 2003 (40%); 2007 (37.1%); 2011 (28.6%). We’ll set the over/under this year at 31%, a total turnout of 992,574 voters. A Bevin win at the top of the ticket with low turnout increases GOP chances in each race.
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 email@example.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this piece contains hyperlinked citations.