Lessons learned, Jack Conway readies for run at Governor's Mansion

syoungman@herald-leader.comFebruary 2, 2014 

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway

Losing isn't all bad.

When Democrat Jack Conway announces he is running for governor this spring, as is widely expected, Kentucky's attorney general will have some early advantages he earned the hard way.

Despite winning statewide office twice, it was Conway's 2010 high-profile loss to Republican Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate race that made him famous in Kentucky.

"I realize that one of the silver linings of having $30 million spent against you in a relatively short political career is that everybody knows your name," Conway said. "I'm not trying to say it in a vain way, but name ID is important. I think I sit in a strong position. I think there's a good chance I would win."

While being declared the frontrunner is largely meaningless this far removed from the 2015 contest, Conway clearly would take the pole position in the governor's race.

Internal polling conducted by Democrats and Republicans shows Conway with a significant lead over other potential candidates for governor, and he is, by a large margin, the most well-known person considering a run.

Looking to 2015, Conway, in a lengthy interview with the Herald-Leader, talked about lessons he learned from his loss to Paul, especially when it comes to the infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad.

The attack ad questioned Paul's religious beliefs, focusing on allegations that Paul was part of a group in college that mocked Christianity and worshipped a god called "Aqua Buddha." Paul called the ad's allegations false.

With a bust of John F. Kennedy over his right shoulder and a ticking clock over his left, Conway took a deep breath when asked about those lessons.

"No matter how big your campaign gets, keep it authentic," he said. "Don't ever let it fail to be authentic. And the only person that controls the authenticity of the campaign is the candidate.

"There was one bad ad. Other than the bad ad, I ran a good campaign."

Conway remembers sitting in a Holiday Inn Express in Paducah on a Thursday night when he first saw the ad that turned the race upside down, put Conway on defense and virtually ensured Paul's ascent to the U.S. Senate.

"I saw it and thought, 'whoa,'" he said. "And let's be honest, the ad was strong as mule's breath."

Both the candidate and his wife had reservations, he said, and he urged state and national campaign strategists to tweak it and to use a focus group to determine what blowback might come from it.

"I said, 'I don't know; I don't feel right about this. Can you change it a little bit?'" he recalls. "And then the D.C. folks come in. 'Oh, you gotta do what your team tells you, you gotta do what your team tells you.' And we went with it.

"It's the only time in my political career I've gone against my gut."

While critical of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Washington team Conway partly blames for rushing the ad and his decision to run it, Conway shoulders most of the blame.

"What that ad did was it allowed (Paul) to play the role of the victim," Conway said. "This is where I'm totally responsible. I should've never let my campaign do that. So I've forgiven myself, but I've learned my lesson."

Not waiting for Crit

In early 2014, haste is no longer a problem for Conway. If anything, the slow deliberations of others might be causing him problems.

Conway is in many ways the political godchild to former state auditor Crit Luallen, who is considering a run for governor. Conway calls her an "extraordinarily close" friend, and she is a godmother to one of his daughters.

The two speak once a month, and the attorney general said he is making his decision to enter the race independent of what Luallen ultimately decides.

"We have made an agreement with each other to continue to talk," he said. "And this doesn't apply to the rest of the field, but it's not going to be a situation where ... one of us jumps in front of the other and says, 'I'm going to beat you into the race and we're going to take your momentum.'

"We've joked that if we had to both walk out on the stage at KET and debate one another, we'd both break out crying probably."

The attorney general said he thinks a successful campaign would take at least 18 months, which means a likely spring announcement to make it official.

So can Conway run against Luallen?

"I don't know," he said. "Can she run against me? If the internal polls are what the internal polls are, she starts 20 points down."

In an email, Luallen took exception to that characterization of a race that has no entrants yet.

"Polls this early are a reflection only of name identification, and it's to be expected that my numbers would be lower since I have been out of office for two years," she said. "In a campaign, I would have the depth and strength of support as well as the resources to make up that ground quickly, no matter who is in the field."

Backslapping

One of the main efforts of Conway's second term as attorney general has been a millennial version of "Just Say No," traveling to schools around the state and warning students about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.

Dr. Karen Shay, a dentist, often joins Conway at these events, bringing auditoriums full of energetic high school students to pin-drop silence as she recalls the death of her daughter, Sarah, in 2006 to a drug overdose.

After sharing her gut-wrenching tale with about 600 students at Campbell County High School last month, Shay turned away from the lectern to Conway, who embraced her in a hug with three quick pats on the back.

Conway has a reputation for being stilted or even the dreaded A-word — aloof — when campaigning, and he acknowledges he's "not the best backslapper in the world."

"I never wanted to do it in a way that it comes across that I'm nothing but a backslapper," he said.

There are times, like interrupting people eating in a diner to ask for their votes, that the process seems "unnatural," he said.

"Now there are some people for who it's the most natural act in the world," Conway said. "I will readily admit that that's not me. It's more of a stepping into other peoples' space issue, and I think that gets misperceived."

Allison Martin, Conway's spokeswoman, is quick to break in on the interview and tell a story about the attorney general bypassing a diner full of patrons in Bowling Green to go to the kitchen and shake hands with the staff.

"I've gotten better," Conway said. "The thing I hear most often is, 'You know, once I got to know you, you were so much different than what I thought you would be.'"

To Shay, Conway is a lifesaver, someone who not only helped her heal but who has kept other Kentucky mothers and fathers from the pain Shay knows all too well.

When she and Conway first started touring the state, Shay struggled, reeling from her daughter's death and those of others close to her over a short period.

She would often start crying during her remarks.

Conway "was just wonderful," Shay said. "If he hadn't been as kind and compassionate, I doubt I could've stuck it out. He's a genuine person. And I don't usually care for politicians."

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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