FRANKFORT — Democrats have at least a slight edge in all but one of Kentucky's down-ticket races for statewide office, but plenty of likely voters say they remain undecided, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
The poll's biggest lead was held by Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee for attorney general and son of outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear. It showed him seven points ahead of his Republican opponent, state Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville. But nearly a quarter of likely voters said they were undecided between Beshear and Westerfield.
The only Republican with an advantage was state Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown, running for the agriculture commissioner's post being vacated by another Republican, James Comer.
However, Quarles' 1-point edge over Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, a farm official and host of a weekly farm radio show, was too small to be statistically significant, according to Survey-USA, which conducted the statewide poll on behalf of the Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV in Lexington, the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. The poll of 685 likely registered voters was taken from July 22 to 28 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
The indecisive down-ticket poll results suggest "how early we are in the general election season," said Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University in Lexington. Relatively few Kentuckians are pondering their choices for governor in July, much less their choices for more obscure offices, including state treasurer or state auditor, Dugi said.
"All of the hard-core Democrats and hard-core Republicans were paying close attention from the get-go, but they also knew who they were voting for from the get-go, too," Dugi said. "The people who swing an election — the so-called weak identifiers that both parties are trying to reach — they have a short attention span. They don't really pay attention until a month before the election. Maybe a week before."
Here's a closer look at each down-ticket race to be decided Nov. 3:
Andy Beshear, a Louisville lawyer at the governor's former firm of Stites & Harbison, is running for the job that his father held in the 1980s. Relying on his father's vast network of political and business associates, Andy Beshear has collected nearly $2 million in campaign donations so far.
The Bluegrass Poll showed that 40 percent of likely voters supported Beshear for attorney general, 33 percent supported Westerfield, the Republican, and 24 percent were undecided.
"I'm Democrat all the way, so that's usually how I vote," said Breckinridge County retiree Wendell Smith, 58, who told the poll he supports Andy Beshear. "And if he's anything like his dad, I think he's gonna be good for Kentucky. I think his dad has been an excellent governor."
Westerfield led by 9 points in Western Kentucky's 1st Congressional District, where he lives. Otherwise, Beshear bested him across the state and among voters who described their ideology as "moderate" and their party affiliation as "independent." Beshear's biggest lead was in Louisville, where he topped Westerfield by 25 points.
Given the younger Beshear's famous last name and his swollen campaign treasury, it's surprising he's not even further ahead, said Don Dugi, the Transylvania University political scientist.
But outside Republican groups are advertising aggressively for Westerfield on television with a potentially effective attack, Dugi said: that Westerfield has vital experience as a prosecutor and chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, while Andy Beshear is a dilettante clutching his father's coattails. The attorney general is the state's top law enforcement officer and its chief legal counsel.
"If they can make hay with that, reminding everyone that Andy Beshear has never been a prosecutor, that could be good for Westerfield," Dugi said.
The Bluegrass Poll showed Republican state Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown a whisker's breadth above Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, a farm businesswoman and broadcaster from Union, in the race for agriculture commissioner. The commissioner's duties include promoting Kentucky farms, increasing agricultural markets and promoting rural development.
Quarles had 33 percent and Lawson Spann had 32 percent, with 30 percent undecided and 5 percent not following the contest.
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, a farmer and attorney, was elected to the state House in 2010. He grew up on his parents' farm in Scott County.
Quarles led in four of the state's six congressional districts, including by 20 points in west-central Kentucky's 2nd Congressional District and 10 points in Eastern Kentucky's 5th District. Lawson Spann held a 20-point lead in Louisville and was up by 5 points in Central Kentucky's 6th District.
Poll respondents Bill Moore and Ron Sloan, both of Morehead, said their votes in the race will be determined by party registration.
"I'm a registered Democrat who is sick and tired that Republicans won't do anything to help our president," Moore said.
"Straight down-the-line Republican voter," Sloan said.
Overall, 63 percent of Republicans chose Quarles but only 51 percent of Democrats picked Lawson 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.
Auditor of public accounts
Incumbent state Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat, holds a narrow lead over Republican Mike Harmon, according to the Bluegrass Poll.
Edelen, of Lexington, led Harmon, an insurance agent and state representative from Danville, by 35 percent to 31 percent, with 30 percent of likely voters saying they were undecided and 4 percent not following the contest.
The two candidates were closely matched in Western Kentucky and Central Kentucky, but Edelen held a 25-point lead in Louisville and a 7-point lead in Eastern Kentucky. Harmon's largest advantage was in Northern Kentucky, where he led by 8 points.
Edelen has been mentioned as a possible challenger next year to Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who is simultaneously running for re-election and for the GOP presidential nomination. Edelen says he has no plans for the Senate at this time.
Edelen has been auditor since January 2012. The primary duty of the job, which pays $117,329 a year, is to audit all accounts and financial transactions of state government agencies.
Bluegrass Poll respondent Vince Smith, a retired bartender in Newport, said he thinks state government in Kentucky needs a change, "but Edelen has done all right as auditor."
Frank Brown, a retired licensed psychiatric technician from London, said he can't vote for Edelen "because he's a Democrat." Asked why he opposes Democratic candidates, Brown said, "look in the newspaper."
Secretary of state
After losing last year's bid to knock off U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes holds a slight lead in her race this year for re-election as Kentucky's secretary of state.
The Bluegrass Poll shows Grimes ahead of Republican Steve Knipper, 46 percent to 40 percent, with 12 percent of likely voters undecided and 2 percent not following the contest.
Knipper, a Catholic health care executive and a former member of the Erlanger City Council in Northern Kentucky, unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for a state House seat in 2008.
Kentucky's secretary of state is the commonwealth's chief election officer, chief business official and chief advocate for civic engagement. The 2014 salary was $117,329.
Grimes, a Lexington attorney, was first elected in 2011. She is the daughter of Jerry Lundergan, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman.
Grimes is especially strong in Jefferson County, where she holds a 27-point lead, and Central Kentucky, where she's up by 19 points. Knipper holds smaller leads in Western Kentucky, and the two candidates are essentially tied in Northern and Eastern Kentucky.
Grimes had the strongest showing of any candidate in the poll among women, outpacing Knipper 47 percent to 36 percent.
Poll respondent Anne Jones of Lexington said she supports Grimes because "I was very much impressed with her in her campaign last year for the U.S. Senate and hope she remains in public office."
Kathy Brumley of Bracken County said she could not support Grimes "because I understand she supports Obama."
State Rep. Rick Nelson, a Democrat from Middlesboro, holds a narrow advantage over Republican Allison Ball, a Prestonsburg bankruptcy lawyer, in the race for state treasurer, according to the Bluegrass Poll. The treasurer is the state government's chief financial officer, responsible for maintaining public funds.
The poll showed 36 percent of likely voters supporting Nelson and 33 percent supporting Ball. But the difference was well within the poll's margin of error, leaving the contest a statistical toss-up. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they were undecided.
Nelson showed a substantial advantage in the 3rd and 6th congressional districts, which include the cities of Louisville and Lexington, respectively. Ball's biggest lead was in Western Kentucky's 1st District, where she was up 10 points.
Ball was more successful than Nelson at peeling support away from the opposing party, a feat that any Republican must accomplish to win statewide office in Kentucky. Sixty-two percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats favored Ball, compared with 57 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans for Nelson.
Few Kentuckians pay attention to state treasurer elections, so unless the candidates can raise a lot of cash to promote themselves, "they're really at the whim of what happens at the top of the ticket," said Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic state treasurer. "If their candidate for governor wins decisively, then he can carry them along on his coattails."
"When I ran, I was told I had to raise at least a half-million dollars if I wanted to mount any kind of a statewide television campaign, and that was back in 2003," Miller said. "I was actually able to do that, but I don't think most (treasurer) candidates can."
As of July 18, Nelson reported having $64 on hand, having spent $7,385 during the primary. Ball had $11,829 on hand, having spent $44,282 in the primary.