Kentucky voters remain largely unfamiliar with the two announced candidates for governor in 2015, as well as a third politician who is expected to make clear his intentions for the race at this weekend's Fancy Farm picnic, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
The three men — Attorney General Jack Conway, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer — were viewed favorably by fewer than one in four voters, suggesting a wide-open race with room for others to join the contest.
"With data suggesting that existing candidates are lesser known, it could encourage fence sitters to be more bullish on getting in," said Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican operative not affiliated with any candidate.
With the hotly contested U.S. Senate race sucking up all the oxygen, poll respondent Kim Aleta Rose of Barbourville said she is only vaguely familiar with the gubernatorial candidates.
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"I really don't know who is running," said Rose, who agreed to a follow-up interview by the Herald-Leader. "Most of the publicity has been on the senatorial race, so I'm not even aware of who the Republicans and Democrats are. Jack Conway is the only one I've heard of. I haven't seen ads or heard any of their issues."
The poll of 714 registered voters was sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It was conducted by SurveyUSA from July 18 through July 23 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Of the three men, Conway has the highest name identification, the result of his two runs for statewide office, including a nationally covered loss to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2010.
Still, 61 percent of registered voters said they have a neutral or no opinion of Conway, a Democrat. He was viewed favorably by 22 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 17 percent.
"If I were Conway I'd be worried," Jennings said. "The GOP has always known it was going to have a real primary, perhaps with three to five candidates who aren't really known that well. With Conway's numbers so low I am sure several Democrats out there are rethinking the myth of his invulnerability."
Comer and Heiner, both Republicans, are equally unknown — 77 percent were either neutral or had no opinion of both men. Among those who knew enough about the men to form an opinion, Comer was viewed more favorably.
Heiner, who announced earlier this month that he had put $4.2 million of his own money into his campaign since entering the race in March, was viewed favorably by 11 percent of registered voters and unfavorably by 12 percent.
Comer, who is expected to make news at the Fancy Farm picnic this weekend and is eyeing mid-September to announce a running mate, was viewed favorably by 15 percent and unfavorably by 8 percent.
Not surprisingly, Conway and Heiner saw their best numbers in the Louisville region, where they both live. Heiner ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Louisville in 2010.
Conway has a 30 percent favorable rating in his hometown and surrounding areas, compared to 20 percent unfavorable. Both numbers drop in the rest of the state, with the attorney general drawing 19 percent favorable and 17 percent unfavorable in Western Kentucky; 19 percent favorable and 16 percent unfavorable in north-central Kentucky, which includes Lexington and Northern Kentucky; and 20 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable in Eastern Kentucky.
Heiner is far and away better known in the Louisville area, winning 23 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable, compared to 5 percent favorable and 9 percent unfavorable in Western Kentucky, 10 percent favorable and 11 percent unfavorable in north-central Kentucky, and 4 percent favorable and 9 percent unfavorable in Eastern Kentucky.
Comer's numbers were best in Western and north-central Kentucky. In Western Kentucky, he was viewed favorably by 17 percent and unfavorably by 10 percent. In north-central Kentucky, it was 17 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable.
In the Louisville region, the agriculture commissioner pulls 13 percent favorable and 8 percent unfavorable, and in Eastern Kentucky, Comer was rated favorably by 14 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 9 percent.
All three politicians said they saw positive signs in the poll results.
"These poll numbers show that Jack Conway is the favorite to be the next governor of Kentucky," Conway's campaign said in a statement.
"This is bad news for the Frankfort politicians who have long touted their supposed advantage in name ID," said Joe Burgan, Heiner's campaign manager. "This race starts out dead even and we are extremely confident in our ability to communicate a winning message to Kentucky voters."
"Considering we haven't announced a ticket or spent a dime, I'm humbled by these positive numbers," Comer said.
While Conway has yet to draw an opponent, there are signs that Comer and Heiner are on a path to a bruising primary.
Among Republicans registered to vote in that primary, Heiner is viewed favorably by 17 percent and unfavorably by 8 percent. Comer is in a similar position, with 18 percent holding a favorable view and 9 percent unfavorable.
"I still think Jamie Comer is the front-runner for the GOP and Conway for the Democrats, but clearly this race has a long way to go with more candidates to come," Jennings said.
Most voters, including poll respondent Tony Curry of Louisville, haven't started paying attention to the still-forming race.
"Right now, I don't know a lot about them," Curry said. "I need to do more research on them."