Larry Dale Keeling: Gov hopefuls lining up

Contributing ColumnistMay 4, 2014 

FRANKFORT — "There's got to be a morning after," Maureen McGovern sang to us back when I still looked up at 40, and at a mostly full head of hair. Few if any mornings after in the Bluegrass State compare to the mornings after a Kentucky Derby.

So, on the morning after the 140th running of the best damn horse race in the world, I congratulate those Kentuckians and their guests who were smart enough to pace themselves through our annual blowout and woke up Sunday clear-eyed, clear-headed and untroubled by any sudden gastric distress. I also congratulate those who were lucky enough to walk away from Churchill Downs or wherever they placed their bets as winners. I hope I woke as a member of both groups.

Conversely, my sympathies go out to those spending Sunday morning dealing with eyes that can't abide sunlight, heads that won't stop pounding and stomachs that keep prompting mad dashes to the potty. My sympathies also go out to those whose Derby picks crossed the finish line looking at other horses' rear ends.

Now, having paid tribute to the weekend's main event, this column will segue, however awkwardly, back to its customary focus: Kentucky politics. Starting with Crit Luallen breaking the hearts of the state's progressive Democrats by opting out of the 2015 governor's race.

Luallen played prominent roles in multiple gubernatorial administrations before her two stellar terms as state auditor and arguably has a better knowledge of state government and a better understanding of Kentucky's needs than anyone else on the current political scene. Thus, her decision represented a big loss for the commonwealth.

But in an era of brutally nasty campaigns and with the failure of the 2014 General Assembly to even address Kentucky's most serious needs much less do anything constructive about them serving as an immediate reminder of the frustrations facing a governor when legislative power is shared by Republicans and Democrats, anyone in either party who seriously contemplates running for governor has to have a fire in the belly that makes the conflagration kicked off by Mrs. O'Leary's cow look like a single lightning bug on a moonless, starless night in the most remote spot on Earth. Only an internal fire of that magnitude can make the external hell a would-be governor must deal with in a campaign and in trying to govern amid gridlock tolerable.

(Should Republicans consolidate legislative power by taking control of the House in November, which is a distinct possibility, a healthy dose of masochism may be required to keep the fire burning in the belly of Democratic gubernatorial wannabes.)

If Luallen didn't feel the requisite fire, which she obviously didn't, she was wise to spare herself the hell. Her friends and supporters should be thankful for it.

Even though the most compelling political story of the moment in Kentucky remains this year's tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (yeah, both face primary opponents, but seriously?), Luallen's recent decision provides a good opportunity to reset the 2015 gubernatorial landscape.

Among Republicans, former Louisville city councilman and one-time mayoral candidate Hal Heiner is in. Whether he truly feels the fire or was pushed in to force Democratic wannabes to jump early and cut into Grimes' fund-raising ability is open to debate.

James Comer, the popular state agriculture commissioner, has been popping up at events all over Kentucky since taking office more than two years ago. In deference to Republicans' hopes of taking over the state House, Comer refused to be pushed into an early decision and has said he will not announce his 2015 intentions until after the November elections. But I would feel more confident betting he will run than I feel about my Derby picks.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jack Conway is all but certain to announce his candidacy within a matter of days. By the end of May, expect state Auditor Adam Edelen to jump in as well.

Former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler have been mentioned as possibilities, but I have doubts about either actually getting in the race. Mongiardo has burned too many bridges within the party, and I would be very surprised if Chandler really has the fire in the belly at this point in his life.

A more intriguing prospect involves Grimes. Democrats pray she beats McConnell, and she appears to be the party's best-ever hope of pulling off that feat. But if she should lose after taking McConnell down to the wire while helping Democrats hang onto the state House by getting party faithful to the polls, she could be well positioned for the 2015 governor's race.

Then there's House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Grimes ally. He recently said Democratic gubernatorial wannabes should stay on the sidelines until after the November elections. Ostensibly, his motivation was to keep the 2015 governor's race from interfering with Democrats' chances of retaining control of the House. But was he really trying to keep the field open for Grimes if she does lose, or even for himself if she doesn't?

With Stumbo, who thrives in chaos often of his own making, it's impossible to say. Of course, if Democrats lose the House on his watch, it doesn't matter what his intentions were. No one will care.

Finally, if Democrats do hold onto the House in November, gubernatorial politics could impact the party's leadership decisions during the 2015 General Assembly organizational session.

All the chatter has Conway picking Rep. Sannie Overly, the Democratic caucus chair, as his running mate. One of a caucus chair's primary jobs is fund-raising for the caucus. Come January, if Overly is part of a gubernatorial slate intent on raising money for itself, will the Democratic caucus look to someone else to attend to its fund-raising interests?

And if Grimes or Stumbo wind up running for governor or Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, whose name has been mentioned as some gubernatorial candidate's possible running mate, winds up in a pairing rivaling a Conway-Overly slate, the soap opera within the caucus could get even more interesting.

So many possibilities, and we've only just begun. Watching could be almost as much fun as watching a good Kentucky Derby.

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