Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway holds an advantage over all four Republicans in the race for governor, but early numbers in his Democratic primary against an unknown candidate hint at potential concerns down the road.
A new Bluegrass Poll shows Conway, who is from Louisville, with a lead of 49 percentage points over perennial candidate Geoff Young of Lexington in the Democratic primary, with 27 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they remain undecided.
In head-to-head polling against four potential Republican challengers — former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin and recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott — Conway enjoys advantages that range from 2 points over Comer to 10 points over Scott.
The Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, surveyed 1,903 registered voters from March 3 to March 8.
Included in those respondents were 639 Democrats likely to vote in the May 19 primary. Among them, Conway held a 61 percent to 12 percent lead over Young, a retired Lexington engineer who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year and was kicked out of the Green Party in 2013. The margin of error on that portion of the poll is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Conway's numbers serve as a reminder of early warning signs for Democrats in last year's U.S. Senate race, when Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes won her party's nomination with less than 77 percent of the vote over unknown, under-funded opposition.
Those protest votes proved to be a harbinger of the rough and ultimately unsuccessful road Grimes had to travel through rural parts of the state, where many registered Democrats who had misgivings about President Barack Obama voted against her.
Conway's weakest performance against Young was in Western Kentucky, where only 51 percent of likely Democratic voters picked the attorney general and 20 percent chose the unknown Young. Conway's margins were better in Eastern Kentucky and north-central Kentucky, which includes Lexington and much of Northern Kentucky, though 31 percent of Democrats in those regions said they remain undecided.
"Any urban Democrat will have to work to attract support from Kentucky voters who are registered as Democrats or independents but who consider the national Democratic Party too liberal for their tastes," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "Kentucky's swing voters include a lot of conservative Democrats who are tough for either party to attract."
George Chidester, of Danville, is a registered Democrat who responded that he was "undecided" in the Democratic primary.
In a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader, Chidester said he would not vote for Conway this year or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president next year, saying he believes that President Barack Obama is "trying to ruin the country."
"I'm signed up as a Democrat, but in the last few years this Democratic machine that's out there has gone haywire," Chidester said. "(Conway's) part of the machine."
In each survey question matching Conway against potential GOP opponents, Conway gets support from 40 to 45 percent of registered voters, while the Republican candidates attract from 33 to 38 percent of registered voters.
Each of the matchups suggest a wide-open race, with undecided voters ranging from 21 to 24 percent. The margin of error on that portion of the survey was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
Conway enjoyed leads over all four Republicans in the Louisville area and north-central Kentucky.
"I think he could definitely do the job," poll respondent Wade Mullins of Lexington said of Conway.
"I typically vote Democratic and that is mostly because I disagree vehemently with a lot of Republican politics," said Mullins, who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader.
Conway performed unevenly in Eastern and Western Kentucky.
In the east, Conway trailed Comer by 5, Heiner and Scott by 3, and tied Bevin. In the west, he trailed Comer by 8, tied Heiner and Bevin, and led Scott by 2.
Charles Leachman, a registered Democrat in Bowling Green, said he "definitely" won't support Conway.
Leachman called Conway a "garbage collector," recalling Conway's 2010 race against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
"I thought he was unfair," Leachman said. "I don't trust Jack Conway."
Meanwhile, Conway appears to hold an advantage over Republican challengers on the issue Kentucky voters say is most important to them: raising the minimum wage.
Nineteen percent of respondents said raising the state's $7.25 minimum hourly wage is their top priority. Conway has said he supports the idea while the four Republicans have said they oppose it.
Republicans, though, have the advantage in the second-most important issue in the race, which voters identified as "doing away with the Kynect health insurance exchange."
Thirteen percent of respondents said eliminating the health exchange set up by Gov. Steve Beshear was their top priority, compared to 9 percent who said their top concern was "improving the Kynect health insurance exchange."
Scott and Bevin have been clear in saying that moving Kentuckians to the federally-run health insurance exchange is a top priority.
Tax reform was the top issue for 12 percent of respondents, followed by "other" at 11 percent. Education and fixing the teachers' pension fund both came in at 10 percent, while drug addiction and "right-to-work" garnered 8 percent each.
Among Republican respondents, eliminating Kynect was the top issue at 21 percent, followed by 16 percent for tax reform.
Among Democratic respondents, raising the minimum wage was the top concern for 26 percent, followed by 13 percent for fixing the ailing teachers' pension fund.