Politics & Government

Drew Curtis will join debate on Kentucky Sports Radio, but other fall debates look iffy

Drew Curtis on Monday announced his run for governor as an independent candidate. His running mate is Heather Curtis, left, his wife.
Drew Curtis on Monday announced his run for governor as an independent candidate. His running mate is Heather Curtis, left, his wife. Herald-Leader

When the candidates for lieutenant governor meet Wednesday to debate at Midway University, Heather Curtis will not be among them.

Curtis, the wife and running mate of independent candidate Drew Curtis, won't join Democrat Sannie Overly and Republican Jenean Hampton at the League of Women Voters of Kentucky's televised debate because the Curtis ticket didn't meet the 10 percent polling threshold to get invited.

That threshold is a common requirement for participation in debates in Kentucky, but in this race, the Curtises are running up against a dearth of public polling, meaning the League of Women Voters and other organizations based their decisions on whom to invite largely on the last Bluegrass Poll, which was released in late July.

In that poll, conducted before Curtis turned in his 5,000 signatures and secured his place on the ballot, the independent drew 8 percent.

Curtis generated a great deal of buzz after his performance at last week's Bluegrass Poll gubernatorial debate, hosted by the poll's media sponsors and Bellar mine University. But a strong debate performance did not guarantee that the independent candidate would be included in the rest of the fall debates.

Opinion: Curtis can win spoiler spot as Conway, Bevin suffer the blahs

The next poll is scheduled for release Sept. 30, but those results will come too late for Heather Curtis to try to get a spot onstage at the League of Women Voters debate and for Drew Curtis at the debate at Centre College on Oct. 6.

Centre, which is co-hosting its debate with AARP, set a series of five criteria for participation that includes a 15 percent polling threshold. Additionally, the candidates had to meet that criteria by Aug. 25.

Michael Strysick, director of communications at Centre College, said the college and its in-house legal counsel, having been involved in the college's 2012 vice presidential debate, looked to the Commission on Presidential Debates in helping to come up with its criteria.

The goal was to be fair to the candidates but also to ensure that the candidates on stage "realistically are considered to be among the principal rivals for the position," Strysick said, quoting the presidential commission.

Centre publicly announced the criteria over the summer, so candidates and potential candidates would be aware of where the bar was set, Strysick said.

"I think what really motivated that is to be as fair as possible," he said.

At least one debate host — Kentucky Sports Radio — has adjusted its criteria, citing fairness and a lack of public polling, to invite Curtis to join the two major party candidates at its debate Sept. 30.

Matt Jones, the founder and host of the popular sports program, originally joined others in setting a 10 percent polling threshold, but Jones said Monday that the absence of more polling left Curtis in an unfair position.

After Curtis' performance at the Bluegrass Poll debate, Jones said, he thought the independent should be included.

"I felt like it was only fair to invite him," Jones said, adding that Curtis "shouldn't be punished" for the lack of polling in the race.

Curtis told the Herald-Leader that he understood that guidelines for participation were necessary, but that they generally presented an unfair advantage to the two major parties while sidelining potential candidates who could do a good job in publicly elected office.

"Nobody wants to hear from the neo-Nazi candidate, including myself," Curtis said. "But at the same time, we might be missing some really good people."

Curtis said debates televised statewide are crucial to the campaign hopes of candidates who aren't bankrolled by special interests, admitting that without being allowed to debate Bevin and Conway, "there is no chance of me winning — none whatsoever."

"Because I don't have the money to buy the media time," he said.

According to his campaign, Curtis has been invited to, and plans to attend, a number of forums around the state through October.

But the biggest prize might depend on how well Curtis does in the next Bluegrass Poll.

KET's Oct. 19 lieutenant governor debate and the Oct. 26 gubernatorial debate will enjoy statewide audiences just days before voters go to the polls, but they also have a 10 percent polling threshold.

"I think that I'm going to hit the 10 percent," Curtis said. "I'm not too worried about it."

And one debate can make a difference.

Curtis said that after his appearance in last week's Bluegrass Poll debate, "everything has changed in a profound way that would not have been possible" without being included in the first televised debate.

Using the humor that helped him stand out at the Bellarmine debate, Curtis said his performance and the subsequent groundswell of support transformed his campaign's hopes of winning in November.

"It went from extremely unlikely to just regular unlikely," he said.