Republicans fighting a heated race for state Senate seat in Southern Kentucky

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 16, 2014 

  • Sara Beth Gregory

    Party: Republican

    Born: Sept. 5, 1982

    Residence: Monticello

    Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and law degree, University of Kentucky

    Occupation: Attorney

    Elected office: Kentucky House of Representatives, 2010-12; Kentucky Senate 2013-present

    Family: Single

    Website: sarabethgregory.com

    George Maxwell "Max" Wise

    Party: Republican

    Born: June 38, 1975

    Residence: Campbellsville

    Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and history, Campbellsville University; master's degree in international relations and national security, University of Kentucky; graduate certificate in homeland security, Texas A & M

    Occupation: Assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University; adjunct professor at UK Patterson School of Diplomacy

    Elected office: None

    Family: Wife, Heather; four children, ages 10, 9, 7, and 3

    Website: Wiseforkysenate.com

Politicians can face fallout over their votes, but the challenger in the 16th District state Senate Republican primary is making an issue of a vote the incumbent didn't cast.

Max Wise has criticized Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, for leaving the Senate floor in February during a vote on a bill that would create panels to review proposed medical malpractice lawsuits in Kentucky.

"I will not walk out on a vote on medical review panels like my opponent did," Wise said. "I think that's completely unacceptable."

Gregory said she thought it would be more ethical for her to skip the vote because the law firm where she works has handled medical malpractice cases.

She charged that Wise has misled voters by spreading false information in campaign advertisements about the medical malpractice vote and other issues, reneging on a pledge not to run a negative campaign.

"It is disappointing, unfortunate, that at some point along the way he decided to start mudslinging," Gregory said.

Health care providers, nursing homes and business groups supported the bill, arguing that the review panels would hold down health costs by weeding out groundless lawsuits. Advocates including AARP opposed it, saying it would shield providers from accountability for medical mistakes.

The Republican-led Senate approved the bill, but it died in the House, where Democrats are in the majority.

The issue has helped raise the temperature of a race that several local politicians said appears to be too close to call.

Wise said he has criticized Gregory's record, not her personally.

The race is Gregory's first defense of the seat. Gregory, 31, had won two elections to the state House before prevailing in a special election for the 16th District Senate seat in December 2012, after Senate President David Williams resigned to become a judge.

After that, however, lawmakers redrew the boundaries of House and Senate districts to conform to population shifts, adding three counties to Gregory's area that it didn't include when she was elected.

The three new counties — Adair, Russell and Taylor — are home to slightly more than half the registered Republicans in the district.

Gregory is an attorney from Monticello, at the southern end of the district. Wise, 38, lives in Campbellsville, at the north end of the district, and teaches at Campbellsville University.

Both have worked overtime in the race.

"They're literally everywhere," said J. Brandon Thompson, GOP chairman in Adair County and a friend to both candidates. "It is extremely close."

Geography and money

The candidates have similar positions on many issues, so geography is one key difference in the race, Thompson said.

Wise said the redistricting created an opportunity for him. He probably wouldn't have run against Republican state Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon, who represented Taylor County before the switch, Wise said.

The race could end up as the most expensive primary for the state legislature this year.

Gregory benefits from better name recognition in some parts of the district as the incumbent, but by early May, Wise had edged her in fundraising. He had spent more money in an effort to boost his profile with voters, although Gregory had more money in the bank for the final weeks of the campaign.

Gregory reported total receipts of $152,915 as of May 5, the last reporting date before the primary, and total expenditures of $99,709.

Wise reported receiving $153,874 as of that date and spending $115,603.

Being in office has helped Gregory's fundraising. She reported $16,000 in donations from political action committees. Wise received none.

No Democrat filed for the seat, so the primary will probably determine who represents the district for four years.

Where they stand

Gregory and Wise are avowed conservatives. Both say creating jobs is a top priority, and both support legislation to make Kentucky a right-to-work state and facilitate public-private partnerships.

Gregory said she opposed a proposal in the last legislative session to raise the minimum wage. Wise said he also is against raising the level. Both candidates oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and the federal health care law commonly known as Obamacare.

Wise contends that Gregory and other legislators didn't do enough to try to block the health care law in Kentucky. Gregory scoffs at that, saying she has cast multiple votes against Gov. Steve Beshear's unilateral move to put the law in place.

Both say they are strong supporters of gun rights. Wise did not get the top rating from the National Rifle Association, as Gregory did, but he said that was because he told the group he would not support allowing guns on college campuses and dorm rooms.

Wise, who worked as an FBI intelligence analyst before becoming a college professor, said he is an NRA member and a gun owner.

Both say they oppose expanded gambling, but Wise said he would vote to put the issue on the ballot so the people of the state could decide. Gregory said that amounts to advancing the issue, something she said she would not do.

Wise said he is the better candidate because of his diverse career, analytical skills and leadership ability, which would allow him to bring a different perspective to a body heavy with lawyers.

"I think I've got that real-world experience that definitely brings a fresh approach to Kentucky politics," he said.

Gregory said she has the knowledge and relationships to get things done in Frankfort. The bills she sponsored this year included one to create an adult-protection registry and one to terminate the parental rights of convicted rapists.

"I think the main difference is I have a record of leadership and experience," Gregory said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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