SOMERSET — God called him to run, says one candidate in the 15th Senate District race in south-central Kentucky. Another has been a trustee at a large Baptist church. The third candidate pastors a Baptist church.
All three oppose higher taxes, abortion, same-sex marriage, a statewide ban on smoking in public places and raising the high school dropout age to 18. They all support gun rights and tout their experience in business.
On many issues, the three candidates seeking the Republican nomination on Tuesday differ little, if at all. But one has a key advantage in fund-raising.
Chris Girdler, 32, is deputy director in the 5th District office of longtime U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers.
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The close connection to the dean of the GOP establishment has helped Girdler raise far more money than his opponents, AC Donahue and Mark Polston.
Girdler, on leave from Rogers' office until after the primary, reported receiving $160,395 in contributions by early May, including $50,000 he loaned his campaign. His campaign had more than $102,000 to spend in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Donahue, 50, reported taking in a total of $18,914 in the race, most from loans and donations he made to his campaign. He had $5,812 left for the final weeks of the race.
Polston, 52, reported total receipts of $15,481, including more than $4,000 he loaned the campaign, and had $7,133 on hand.
Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, who has represented the district made up of Pulaski, Casey, Russell and Adair counties since 1997, did not seek re-election and endorsed Polston. No Democrat filed to run.
Despite similar stances on many issues, the three Republicans differ on some.
Donahue and Polston support term limits, for instance; Girdler does not. Voters should decide whether it's time for someone to leave office, Girdler said.
Polston and Donahue also support allowing charter schools in Kentucky, but Gird ler does not.
Donahue, a native of Lexington who served in the Army before going to law school, said God called him to run for the state Senate.
"He didn't tell me I was going to win. He just told me to run the race," Donahue said.
He said if elected, his top goal would be to be a "constitutionalist."
"Our government is doing a heckuva lot of things that it has no business doing," Donahue said.
Asked for an example, he cited free cellphones provided to recipients of public assistance. "They don't need a cellphone. They need to get a job," he said.
Donahue said churches once had the responsibility for providing education and welfare programs, but the state took on those jobs.
There is a proper place for government to provide a public education system and welfare, he said, but the programs have grown ever larger and more costly.
"A significant portion of our public education system is nothing more than a glorified baby-sitting service for parents that need a place to house their kids for eight hours a day," he said.
He said another priority would be to cut the state budget by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and through "massive welfare reform."
Donahue signed a pledge to oppose any increase in the state sales or income tax, to support cutting individual taxes and to eliminate the business-receipts tax.
He operates a law firm that specializes in recouping money for insurance companies, often in cases in which they have paid a claim involving an uninsured motorist.
Polston grew up in Pulaski County but moved to Indiana to pastor a church and went to law school there.
He worked in the Indiana attorney general's office, primarily on cases to collect money owed to the state, before returning to Kentucky in 2005. He operates a carpet store but continues to pastor a Baptist church.
Polston said he and McGaha had mutual friends who asked him to run after McGaha said he wouldn't seek another term.
Many people don't think their state senators are accessible, he said.
"I really, really have a concern that our government is being controlled by the political establishment" and is not responsive to working people, Polston said.
He said if elected his top concerns would include cutting debt and spending. One example would be to do away with prevailing-wage laws that increase the cost of state-funded projects, Polston said.
The state also should reduce the size of the education bureaucracy to make sure teachers have the necessary resources, and it must cut Medicaid but preserve access for people who truly need the health program, Polston said.
"Government cannot care for all of these individuals that are on Medicaid," he said.
Polston said that if Girdler is elected, his job in Rogers' office could pose a potential conflict with his Senate role.
"Who's he gonna advocate for?" Polston said.
Polston said he supports eliminating the corporate and personal income taxes in Kentucky, and capping the state gas tax so it does not continue to rise with gas prices.
Girdler is a native of Pulaski County who worked for a houseboat company before joining Rogers' staff.
Girdler said he decided to seek the Senate seat because he has a passion for public service.
In addition to providing a voice for the district in Frankfort, Girdler cited tax reform as a top priority.
"The income tax is a productivity tax," he said. "Eliminating the income tax will lead to rapid and sustainable growth."
Girdler said drug abuse is another key issue. He said while working on the issue he's seen one thing strong enough to help people overcome addiction, "and that is a person's faith in the Almighty, and I will help lead to partner with local and faith-based initiatives."
Girdler said he could not accommodate a one-on-one interview with a newspaper reporter during the last two weeks of the campaign because of his tight schedule, so he answered questions by email.
Girdler, whose mother is a retired teacher and principal, stresses his support for public education. He said he would support increasing outreach efforts and funding for programs for toddlers and preschoolers.
Girdler said he has seen Rogers demonstrate "how government can work for you instead of against you" and would apply that lesson.
"He has taught me that you can help a region by building real relationships and through those growing an economy and improving a region," Gird ler said.