FRANKFORT — The race for Kentucky attorney general slid to the right during the last 60 days as Democrat Andy Beshear lost the seven-point lead he held in July over Republican Whitney Westerfield.
Beshear and Westerfield are tied at 38 percent in a new statewide Bluegrass Poll of 701 likely voters conducted Sept. 22-27 by SurveyUSA. Twenty-two percent said they were undecided; 2 percent said they were not following the race.
The poll, taken on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Three of the other four down-ballot races for statewide office Nov. 3 were in a statistical dead heat with less than five weeks remaining. The only candidate with a modest lead was Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was eight points ahead of Republican challenger Steve Knipper.
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Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University in Lexington, said he expects poll numbers to continue shifting in the lower-profile contests leading up to Election Day.
"We have not yet seen the major advertising for these candidates," Dugi said. "The most ads we have seen seem to be for attorney general."
In the previous Bluegrass Poll in late July, 40 percent of likely voters backed Beshear for attorney general, 33 percent favored Westerfield and 24 percent were undecided. Since then, Westerfield has solidified his standing among Republicans — 71 percent now back him, as do 19 percent of Democrats — while Beshear's support from Democrats sagged slightly, down three points to 59 percent.
Overall, Westerfield leads among whites, men and the youngest and oldest voters. Beshear is strongest among blacks, women and the middle-aged.
Beshear, a son of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, is a corporate attorney at Stites & Harbison in Louisville. Westerfield is a Hopkinsville lawyer and chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
Political observers say two factors could explain Beshear's slide. One, outside Republican groups are airing television spots that link him to Democratic President Barack Obama, who is hugely unpopular with conservatives. Two, Beshear himself is running a campaign that might fail to inspire liberal Democrats, by criticizing federal environmental laws while carefully avoiding a position on same-sex marriage and the federal health care law.
Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the University of Kentucky political science department, said he initially was confused when he saw Beshear's campaign commercials last month. Featuring Britainy Beshear praising her husband "Andy" and "the same old fluff" about faith and family values, Yanarella said, he assumed they were commercials for Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington.
"What you've got are Democrats who don't run as Democrats anymore, and so it's not surprising the polls suggest there's not a dime's worth of difference between Beshear and Westerfield," Yanarella said. "Their campaigns are essentially the same."
Mary Ward of Mason County said she'll vote for Beshear partly because she admires the job his father did as governor, but also because Westerfield praised Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for not issuing marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June.
"That really turned me off," said Ward, one of the poll respondents who agreed to a follow-up interview. "Mr. Westerfield is not nearly as knowledgeable as he needs to be to serve as attorney general. I think there should be a strict separation between church and state. That's not just in the Constitution, the Bible says that, too. You give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and you save your prayers for church."
Beverly Saelen of Elizabethtown said she's for Westerfield, although she's not very familiar with him.
"To be honest with you, I'm just sick of Democrats, from President Obama on down. I just don't like what they've been doing," Saelen said.
Here's a closer look at the other down-ticket races:
Auditor of public accounts
Democratic incumbent Adam Edelen edges Republican state Rep. Mike Harmon, 35 percent to 33 percent, in the toss-up contest for state auditor, the poll found.
Edelen's advantage has dwindled from 4-points in late July, when he led 35 percent to 31 percent.
Still, 27 percent of likely voters remain undecided and 6 percent are not following the race, leaving plenty of room for either candidate to find momentum in the final month of the election.
"There's not been much advertising in this race and I think incumbency will play a factor before it's over," Dugi said.
Edelen, a Lexington resident who has been mentioned as a possible challenger next year to Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, holds his largest lead in Louisville, where he bests Harmon by 28 points.
Harmon, an insurance agent and state representative from Danville, is strongest in the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts in Western Kentucky, where he enjoys a 9-point lead in both.
Edelen has the support of only 55 percent of registered Democrats who were surveyed, while 63 percent of Republicans back Harmon.
Kim Tapp, a forklift operator in Montgomery County, said he is voting for Edelen because Edelen has done a "good job" in office.
But former Urban County Council member Joe Jasper of Lexington said he cannot vote for the incumbent.
"My problem with the position of state auditor is that no one could ever tell me who audits the auditor," said Jasper. "That's why I'll be voting for the other guy."
Republican state Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown widened his advantage over Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann in the latest poll, though his 34 percent to 31 percent lead in the race for agriculture commissioner remains well within the poll's margin of error.
Twenty-nine percent of likely voters remain undecided in the race and 5 percent are not following the race.
Quarles, a lawyer, led Lawson Spann, a farm businesswoman and broadcaster from Union, by 1 point in July.
The fundamentals of the race likely favor Quarles, Dugi said, noting that the last two agriculture commissioners have been Republicans — James Comer and Richie Farmer — and the job traditionally has been held by men.
Poll respondent Martha Prewitt, a retired school teacher from Flemingsburg, said she favors Quarles because "his parents are farmers, he's a lawyer and he's a good Republican."
Darlene Combs a retiree from Tollesboro, said she likes what she has read about Spann and will vote for her.
"It's especially tough for women in politics and I'm glad to see she is a successful businesswoman in agriculture," said Combs.
Spann is vice president for marketing of Lawson Marketing Inc., an agricultural marketing and consulting company that works with import and exports clients in Argentina, Brazil and Europe. Quarles was elected to the state House in 2010.
In the poll, Quarles leads in four of the state's six congressional districts, including by 20 points in west-central Kentucky's 2nd Congressional District, 5 points in Eastern Kentucky's 5th District and 11 points in Central Kentucky's 6th.
Spann held a 21-point lead in Louisville and a 7 point advantage in Northern Kentucky's 4th District.
Overall, 66 percent of Republicans chose Quarles but only 51 percent of Democrats picked Spann, the weakest showing of any down-ticket candidate among voters of the same party. More than 1 in 4 voters in both parties hadn't made up their mind.
Secretary of state
Grimes' 8-point lead over Knipper — 46 percent to 38 percent — is not surprising, Dugi said, given that she ran a closely-watched statewide campaign for U.S. Senate last year, in which she was easily defeated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"She has high-name recognition along with the advantage of incumbency," he said.
Knipper, a Catholic health care executive and a former member of the Erlanger City Council in Northern Kentucky, is making his first statewide bid for office. He unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for a state House seat in 2008.
The poll shows Grimes, a lawyer from Lexington, ahead in every age group and among lower- and middle-income voters.
Knipper holds a lead among upper-income voters and in the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts.
Grimes leads in the other four districts and is especially strong in Louisville, where she leads 54 percent to 30 percent.
Fifteen percent of likely voters are undecided in the race and 1 percent are not following it.
Poll respondent Angela Perry, a Versailles housewife, said she is a moderate who got "turned off" by Grimes in last year's U.S. Senate race.
"She was too negative, not a person I could relate to," Perry said. "I wanted to know more about her instead of how bad she thought McConnell was."
But Maxine Patton, a retired restaurant manager from Richmond, said she'll vote for Grimes because she has "a proven record" and is "an honest woman."
Republican Allison Ball has gained momentum in the last two months, turning a 3-point deficit into a 2-point advantage over Democratic state Rep. Rick Nelson in the toss-up race for state treasurer.
Ball, a Prestonsburg bankruptcy lawyer, claimed a 35 percent to 33 percent lead over Nelson, a Democratic state representative from Middlesboro, in the latest poll.
More than one in four likely voters — 28 percent — remain undecided and 4 percent are not following the race.
"We're probably going to see this one shake back and forth for awhile," Dugi said. "The public pays little attention to this one so ads could make a real difference."
In the state's regions, Ball's biggest lead was in west-central Kentucky's 2nd Congressional District, where she was up 13 points. Nelson was ahead in the 3rd, 4th and 6th Congressional Districts.
Both candidates are from Eastern Kentucky, where Ball held a 7-point lead.