Larry Keeling: History suggests $4.2 million bet is risky

HERALD-LEADER ColumnistJuly 13, 2014 

FRANKFORT — This and that, leading off with a couple of examples of "betting on the come" (always a risky gamble):

So far, Republican gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner has bet $4.2 million, the amount he has loaned his campaign, on the come. No doubt the Louisville developer would like to get enough contributions from supporters to recoup his money, but recent Kentucky history suggests wealthy gubernatorial candidates who put this kind of cash into a campaign wind up being largely self-financed. Just ask Democrat Bruce Lunsford (a combined total of nearly $14 million in 2003 and 2007) or Republican Billy Harper ($6 million in 2007).

The reason is simple. Once a candidate such as Heiner plops down a $4.2 million wager on himself, virtually at the snap of a finger, even folks who might agree with him figure he doesn't need their monetary help. So, they keep their checkbooks closed, which has a secondary effect on the candidate's campaign.

One of the better ways wannabes for any political office can generate grass-roots support is to persuade grass-roots people to invest in their campaigns. No matter how small the contributions, people who have written checks to a candidate's campaign have made their own personal bet and thus have a personal interest in getting the candidate elected. The more grass-roots contributions a candidate receives, the more grass-roots volunteers he or she can expect to deploy in the crucial "get out the vote" ground game.

With fewer people having skin in the game, largely self-financed candidates have to rely more heavily on media buys and mailers, the stuff a lot of voters simply tune out when it starts reaching saturation levels near the end of campaigns.

None of this means Heiner can't win his party's nomination (or the general election in November 2015). And the fact he has a long way to go to catch up with Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer's statewide name recognition makes his $4.2 million wager (so far) a calculated one. But Wallace Wilkinson was the last gubernatorial candidate to bet on the come and win. And that was 27 years ago.

Churchill Downs apparently bet $100,000 on the come back in January, when it contributed the money to the Next Generation Leadership Fund, a political action committee backing Republican state House candidates this year.

Comer, who supports a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling if it helps the Kentucky racing industry compete with purses in "racino" states, is raising money for the Next Generation super-PAC. So, the best I can figure, Churchill is betting a pro-expanded gambling Republican governor can talk a Republican-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate into sending such an amendment to voters.

Democrats reacted to the disclosure of Churchill's contribution by saying (accurately) that Republican lawmakers have been the roadblock keeping expanded gambling from happening in recent years.

But I suspect that some of those anti-gambling Republican votes were not so much opposed to gambling (or at least letting voters decide the issue) as they were opposed to letting Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear play with the extra revenue gambling would generate. That could change with Republicans in the Governor's Mansion and in control of both General Assembly chambers.

However, if Republicans don't take control of the House this November, Churchill can forget about even hiring a lobbyist for the 2015 legislative session. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who had previously said a gambling amendment would be House Bill 1 next year, no doubt will scuttle that plan and happily kill anything Churchill wants in the near future.

By mistakenly choosing to put himself on the wrong side of history in regard to gay marriage, Beshear has assured that his already austere legacy now includes support of arguments U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II politely described as "absurd," "irrational" and "not those of serious people."

Wonder what Beshear thought was worth subjecting himself to this kind of judicial ridicule, not to mention the blot on his name in history books of the future?

Whatever she did or didn't do, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican super-PACs were going to try to hang President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (both unpopular in Kentucky for their liberal positions on energy) around Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' neck.

So, now they'll hang liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren around Grimes' neck as well?

Big deal. Warren's recent fund-raising visit helped spotlight Grimes' populist positions on student loans, the minimum wage and equal pay for equal work, exactly the kind of issues Grimes needs to exploit to give her the best chance of ousting McConnell.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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