FRANKFORT — Attorney General Jack Conway appeared unusually relaxed for a man who just hours earlier had announced he is running for governor, even as technical problems temporarily delayed the launch of his campaign website.
Smiling and seated next to running mate Sannie Overly, the Democrat Caucus chairwoman in the state House, Conway on Tuesday afternoon described the idea of running a state-focused campaign for the governor's mansion without the interference or consideration of national Democrats as leaving him "freed and liberated."
"If I agree with the national Democrats on something, then fine," said Conway, a two-term attorney general who was defeated by Rand Paul in a bruising 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate. "But if I disagree, then I'm going to feel awfully free to say so."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Conway weighed in on hot topics facing the state, concerns about whether his early entry into the 2015 race will distract from Democratic candidates on the ballot this year and the perks of running a state campaign instead of a national one.
In the interview and his video announcement to supporters, Conway discussed his record as attorney general, hailing his success in fighting prescription drug abuse, Medicaid fraud and cybercrime.
"I think I offer a wide range of broad policy experience that's unmatched by anyone in the race," Conway said. "And I say that with all humility and knowing that I'm going to have to work hard for it, and I've got a great partner."
By announcing early — and picking a member of the House Democratic leadership as his running mate — Conway and Overly risk drawing the ire of Democrats, such as House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who called earlier this year for potential candidates to stay focused on keeping control of the state House and electing likely Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
On Tuesday, Stumbo reiterated his desire for Democratic candidates to wait until after the November elections to announce their campaigns for governor, but said, "I also understand everyone has to run their own race."
"While I wish every Democrat who jumps in the race well, my focus remains electing a Democratic majority to the House and ...our Democratic nominee — who I believe will be Alison Lundergan Grimes — to the U.S. Senate," Stumbo said in a statement.
Conway said he met last week with Grimes, who hopes to unseat U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He said she told him it was her preference that he wait until the Fancy Farm political picnic in early August to make the announcement.
"She was wanting to know do I need to do it now or Fancy Farm, and we kind of talked a little bit about the summer," Conway said. "And once we got into it, the process went kind of by the wayside, and I said, 'I'm not going to step on your toes.' And I think she appreciated that."
Conway stressed that he's for Grimes "100 percent," and while he will start fundraising and organizing right away, he's "not going to put any kind of expectation on a June 30 fundraising number."
"I don't disparage Gov. Beshear on this, but he was raising money during my Senate campaign," Conway said. "It's normal in Kentucky politics to have these things overlap a little bit."
GOP takes aim
When asked about potential conflicts in raising money for both her re-election campaign to the House and the governor's campaign, Overly said she's "not concerned about conflicts because, as I told Jack, my first and only priority until November of this year is to ensure that the Democratic Party holds onto the majority in the Kentucky House."
Coincidentally, likely Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer, the state's agriculture commissioner, was already scheduled to do a fundraiser in Bourbon County next week for Dwaine Curran, Overly's opponent in the House race.
"I couldn't be happier about this announcement," Comer said Tuesday. "Because we are working hard for Dwaine Curran, and this gives him a real shot."
Overly said she has heard nothing but encouragement from her constituents "in Bourbon and Bath and out in Nicholas County who are very excited about the opportunity to have someone from their region represent them in the executive branch of state government."
Comer wasn't the only Republican to welcome Conway to the race Tuesday.
Republican Hal Heiner, the only other candidate who has announced a run for governor so far, said through his spokesman Joe Burgan that "career politicians like Jack Conway are responsible for keeping our commonwealth from realizing its potential."
A handful of other Democrats also continue to mull a run for governor, including State Auditor Adam Edelen, who has hinted heavily that he will enter the race after completing an audit of the Jefferson County schools.
Through a spokeswoman, Edelen said he is "focused on 100,000 Jefferson County school children and making sure all Kentucky kids get a world-class education."
"(Edelen) will have more to say about 2015 when he wraps up the most significant performance examination ever conducted by the auditor's office," spokeswoman Stephenie Hoelscher said.
Conway on health care
On the issues, Conway said he plans to use the liberation he feels as a gubernatorial candidate to promote and defend the Kentucky version of President Barack Obama's health care law.
"You get in a Senate race and you realize that you're kind of a pawn in a larger game, and you don't have the flexibility and you're answering whatever the question du jour is in Washington, D.C.," Conway said. "And in a race for governor, you can distinguish yourself. You can say that Steve Beshear made health care reform work in Kentucky. You can say that getting 415,000 signed up for health care is a good thing."
He added: "If we need to tweak it and fix it, that's fine."
Kentucky's next governor will be in office when the federal government stops paying for all of a Medicaid expansion Beshear implemented under the federal health law, instead paying 90 percent of the cost. Still, Conway said "it's an expansion we couldn't afford not to put in place because we covered so many people, and covering that many people has benefits downstream for our economy, for our hospital systems, for our providers, for our doctors, for our tax revenues."
"I think we'll be able to (afford it), but if we're not we'll make the tough choices," Conway said. "We'll make the tough choices to make certain that kids receive health care in this state."
Regarding his recent decision to not appeal a federal judge's ruling that would require Kentucky to recognize gay marriages legally performed elsewhere, Conway said he thinks "it's a wash" politically.
"But I think most importantly, in the fall of 2015, that issue will not be the one that decides the race," he said.
As for the coal industry, Conway said he is a supporter, but "I'm not a global-warming denier, and I understand that there's a future to build for. But Kentucky's 90 percent coal-fired. We're the third-largest coal producer in the country."
On tax reform, Conway said "the problem with our tax system is that it doesn't grow with the economy."
"It's outmoded," he said. "So I wouldn't be looking for a tax increase. I'd be looking for something that's tailored to a modern economy."
Conway also said that getting expanded gambling on the ballot for Kentuckians to decide would be one of his priorities.
"I know Gov. Beshear hasn't been able to get that through, but I'm going to keep trying to get that on the ballot because I think the people of Kentucky ought to have an opportunity to vote on it," he said.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.