The race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Kentucky is a dead heat, with Hal Heiner, James Comer and Matt Bevin all statistically tied with a week to go until the May 19 primary, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
Following days of mudslinging in the race, Bevin garnered support from 27 percent of likely Republican primary voters, compared to 26 percent for Comer and 25 percent for Heiner. Those results amount to a statistical tie since the poll of 517 Republicans has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott placed a distant fourth with 8 percent, and 14 percent said they were undecided.
The telephone poll was conducted May 5 to 10 by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville.
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Allegations made last week that Comer physically and mentally abused his college girlfriend do not appear to have torpedoed his campaign, or his standing among female voters.
In the last Bluegrass Poll, taken in early March, Comer and Bevin trailed Heiner by 8 points, 28 percent to 20 percent. At that point, 15 percent of Republican women supported Comer. That number is now 20 percent.
Poll respondent Margaret Robertson of Calvert City said she didn''t believe the allegations against Comer.
"I think people come by and say something bad about them to leave a taint on them," Robertson said. "I don't think he's the kind of person to do that."
Poll respondent David Logan of London said he wanted the Republican candidates "to quit this fussing and fighting and carrying on," arguing that "everybody has made mistakes."
"My county court clerk and me are pretty good friends, and he's backing (Comer), and I started paying a little more attention to him," Logan said. "I don't go for this mudslinging and lying, and he done this and that; I just don't go for it."
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said he was "not surprised to see Comer looking stronger in this poll, compared to the last Bluegrass Poll, despite the controversy attaching to his candidacy."
"He was slow to start campaigning, and voters who seemed to form his natural constituency had not yet drifted into his corner," Voss said. "Now he's looking strong among the older, more rural voters who might be expected to prefer a commissioner of agriculture from Western Kentucky."
Heiner's campaign had owned the airwaves for months earlier this year, but Bevin and Comer have rivaled his spending in recent weeks.
Heiner's largest regional drop-off came in his hometown of Louisville. In March, Heiner won support from 48 percent of those surveyed in an area that includes the state's largest city, compared with 23 percent for Bevin and 10 percent for Comer.
According to the latest poll, Heiner still leads in Louisville, but he now holds only a 36 percent to 30 percent lead over Bevin, who also is from Louisville. Comer increased to 18 percent.
In Eastern Kentucky, Heiner's support remained flat, moving from 28 percent in March to 27 percent today. In that region, Comer has moved from 14 percent support in March to 27 percent.
Bevin and Scott have stayed about the same in Eastern Kentucky, with Bevin coming in at 14 percent and Scott at 15 percent.
Bevin has made gains in just about every other region of the state, especially in north-central Kentucky, which includes the Lexington region and Northern Kentucky.
In March, Bevin was losing that region to Heiner 19 percent to 23 percent. But the latest poll shows Bevin winning north-central Kentucky with 39 percent, compared to 17 percent for Heiner, 22 percent for Comer and 7 percent for Scott.
Poll respondent Arthur Robert Johnson of West Liberty said that, like him, Bevin is a military veteran who "seems like he's got more of an idea of my kind of Kentucky than the others."
"He came up the hard way like everybody else, and he's got that big family, so he's a family man," Johnson said. "Some of the others, they could care less about us out here. I've seen that happen too many times."
Polling in Western Kentucky has remained largely unchanged.
In March, Comer led the region from which he hails with 38 percent, compared with Heiner at 15 percent, Bevin at 22 percent and Scott at 5 percent. Now, polling shows Comer at 39 percent, Heiner at 18 percent, Bevin at 24 percent and Scott staying at 5 percent.
Although Bevin has shown gains statewide, Voss cautioned that his strong support among younger voters could be problematic.
"Bevin still seems to be enjoying the benefit of his statewide name recognition from last year's Senate race, performing well with younger Republicans and in the conservative Northern Kentucky region," Voss said.
"Bevin's in a risky position building his core support among younger voters, because they tend not to vote as faithfully as older voters," he said.
Comer, on the other hand, leads among seniors.
Heiner has continued to cast himself as a Frankfort outsider, a message that resonates with poll respondent Carlos Milby of Greensburg.
"I know Comer. I've asked him for some favors for some things in our county," Milby said. "He acted like he didn't even know who I was after he got elected. He's just with the old establishment. I'm for new blood, and what I've read on Heiner, I think he'd be OK."