Politics & Government

Sam Youngman: The state of the race for governor

Conway Herald-Leader

With less than two months until Kentucky voters go to the polls to choose a new governor, there is a strange theme taking shape:

If Jack Conway wants to win, he'd better start talking; if Matt Bevin wants to win, he probably should talk less; and there are very few Kentuckians talking about either of them.

With the Labor Day starting gun having sounded, a quiet summer that has illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of the two major-party candidates and a general lack of interest among the broader electorate is about to give way to an intense and nasty sprint to the finish.

While the saga of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis threatens to cast a long shadow over the rest of the campaign, there are other factors at play that could go a long way in determining who prevails in November.

Here's a look at the three men running and the opportunities and challenges they are facing:

Jack Conway

There are Democrats in Kentucky who have been worried about the attorney general, toying with the idea of starting a 1-800 line for Kentuckians to call if they've seen their gubernatorial candidate.

That's an exaggeration, but not by much.

Conway has kept a low profile this summer, focusing his time and energy on his day job and a relentless fundraising schedule, having set a budget goal of $10 million and keenly aware of the massive checks his opponent has a habit of writing to himself.

Conway alternately rejects and defends the idea that his focus on fundraising has kept him from campaigning in earnest, in one sentence denying the complaints of Democrats who say they haven't seen him anywhere and in the next explaining he won't be able to spend time on traditional political rallies until October.

His low visibility is causing angst and concern among Democrats who excel at both, but to define Bevin as untrustworthy, Conway has to have cash for an extensive and expensive media effort. It is his only shot at surviving a political environment that has become increasingly poisonous for Democrats.

Even before Bevin's eager embrace of Kim Davis' defiance of a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Conway was swimming against the currents created by President Barack Obama's enduring unpopularity in the state.

And at $1,000 a clip — the maximum contribution amount in the Bluegrass State — it takes a long time to get to $10 million. But the time spent raising money comes at the expense of high-profile events and rallies, reinforcing Conway's reputation as an aloof retail politician and giving Bevin repeated opportunities to accuse Conway of hiding.

The result is a lack of energy within the grass roots, and in a low turnout election, that absence of enthusiasm could cost Conway greatly.

As the race turns to the fall, expect Conway to proceed with a two-front strategy: The first is to continue to hammer Bevin as an "East Coast con man" too erratic to govern, while Conway tries to project competence, knowledge of the issues and experience in managing state government efficiently.

That experience might have been an asset in recent campaigns, but there is an undeniable anti-incumbent strain running through the electorate this year in Kentucky and around the nation.

The only way for Conway to overcome that is to bank enough money to run enough ads to make Bevin seem unelectable.

But there are some advantages to laying low. The most obvious is that Conway made it through the summer without making any major gaffes, while Bevin spent that time debating himself on a number of issues.

Matt Bevin

With each passing day, it's looking more and more likely that Bevin, despite his penchant for contradictory remarks and unnecessary confrontation, can win this race.

Bevin has spent much of the summer reversing himself on health care, his past tax problems, early childhood education, public-private partnerships to pay for infrastructure improvements, his rocky relationship with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and more.

While Conway has done nothing but nuts-and-bolts campaign-building, Bevin has tried to swing for the fences on every play, leaving uneasy establishment Republicans to take on the work of building an actual campaign infrastructure.

Democrats last week pointed to a strange Internet video Bevin shot while standing on the side of Interstate 64 in front of the Kentucky Democratic Party's headquarters in Frankfort, railing against liberals and chiding them for a marquee that reads, "We can't trust Matt Bevin."

While Bevin is finding time for stunts like that, he is missing the little, but important, things. For example, the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed McConnell in last year's Senate race, sent out questionnaires in July to Conway, Bevin and the two candidates running for attorney general.

Three of the four candidates returned the questionnaires, which were distributed to the local unions to help guide their endorsement decisions. Bevin did not return a questionnaire, instead calling and talking to the head of the union.

Republican insiders and officials, far from enamored of Bevin and his unorthodox style since last year's run against McConnell, have come into the fold, albeit reluctantly.

McConnell has led the charge in that direction, and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie and others have gotten on board, loaning staff and contributing massive sums to the effort with the goal of electing a Republican whether they like him or not.

Bevin still has a habit of sticking his thumb in the eyes of people trying to help him, like his pre-Fancy Farm remarks about Frankfort politicians settling a sexual-harassment case. Never mind that Republican Senate President Robert Stivers was among those who agreed to settle the case.

But Bevin has found something worth its weight in gold in a base election — a wedge issue that could dominate headlines right up until Election Day.

Faster than an Olympic swimmer diving into a pool, Bevin has leaped to the defense of Kim Davis, using the latest social-issues stand-off as a blunt instrument with which to bash Conway and Gov. Steve Beshear as cowards and tools of a liberal, national Democratic Party.

While his attacks lack accuracy and honesty, they are clear, concise, swift and quite possibly very effective, if for no other reason than they are exciting a base of support that was dominant in its ballot-box efforts to push back against Democrats last November.

In a vacuum, Bevin's campaign looks like a train wreck. But in this political environment, the wind is at his back no matter how much he spits into it.

Drew Curtis

While impressions of Conway and Bevin are holding steady on a spectrum ranging from yawns to eye-rolls, independent candidate Drew Curtis is this fall's big question mark.

To say that Curtis, founder of the humorous Internet news site Fark.com, is an unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign is an understatement.

After a spring and summer spent at comic-book conventions gathering the necessary 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot, Curtis is now in the unenviable position of trying to gain attention for his upstart campaign.

Curtis is doing the work. He gobbles up speaking invitations and shows up at events such as Fancy Farm and the Farm Bureau's ham breakfast, hanging out and chatting with reporters but rarely making it onto the stage to speak or into the next day's headlines.

With the inherent disadvantages of running as a third-party candidate and no obvious base of financial support, it remains hard to view Curtis as a serious contender.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Curtis will play a spoiler role, peeling off just enough support from one of the two major-party candidates — most likely Conway, despite what early polling has shown.

When asked about that possibility, Curtis makes an excellent point. He says those votes don't "belong" to anybody. He's right. They have to be earned.

But with only weeks left before voters go to the polls, Curtis has an uphill climb to become well-enough known to earn votes that aren't cast in protest against Bevin and Conway.

So that's where we stand on the just after Labor Day, largely unenthused and undecided about two candidates locked in a dead heat, with a third who faces the Herculean task of becoming well known without being well funded.

The next two months will bring more debates and sharper exchanges as the candidates scratch, claw and fight for every advantage.

So brace yourself, Bluegrass voters, the homestretch is going to be a bruiser.