Attorney General Jack Conway will almost certainly win the Democratic nomination in next week's primary election, and he sits in a strong position for the fall campaign against whoever emerges as the Republicans' nominee, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
But the poll also reveals that many conservative Democrats harbor doubts about Conway, giving Republicans plenty of room to attack in coming months.
Among 707 Democrats who are likely to vote next week, Conway crushes perennial candidate Geoff Young of Lexington 68 percent to 13 percent. Nineteen percent remain undecided. The survey of Democrats has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Conway also enjoys leads over all four of his potential Republican challengers. Against Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Conway holds a 45 percent to 39 percent lead with 16 percent undecided. His margin extends to 12 points over former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner, 11 points over Louisville businessman Matt Bevin and 16 points over retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott.
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That portion of the poll surveyed 1,677 likely November voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
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.
All of those head-to-head numbers suggest that Conway has widened his lead over whomever the Republicans nominate.
In March, Conway was beating Comer 40 percent to 38 percent, Heiner 41 percent to 38 percent, Bevin 42 percent to 36 percent and Scott 43 percent to 33 percent.
Still, it's problematic for Conway's campaign that nearly one-third of Democratic respondents chose the little-known and underfunded Young over Conway or said they remain undecided in the Democratic primary.
Overall, the "results look mixed for Jack Conway," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
"The poll shows various signs that Kentucky's more moderate Democratic voters have potential areas of concern with him," Voss said. "That being said, right now he has a lot of room to define himself with those voters as the Republican candidates get down in the mud and wrestle for their party's nomination."
Of those who consider themselves "very conservative" Democrats, Conway won the support of only 53 percent, compared with 18 percent for Young and 29 percent who said they were undecided.
Among Democrats who identified as "conservative," Conway did better, winning 64 percent of respondents' support to 13 percent for Young and 23 percent undecided.
Conway's best numbers come from self-identified "very liberal" Democrats.
Seventy-six percent of respondents who described themselves that way picked Conway over just 6 percent for Young.
Poll respondent Ray Whitener of Louisville, who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader, said he remains undecided but thinks Conway "is a weak candidate."
"I don't see him with the necessary credentials to be governor," Whitener said. "The Democratic Party needs to look deeper for someone to be governor. I really don't know him (Young) that well. My vote will be more as a protest to the party. I don't think the Democratic Party has done a good job of putting forward candidates. I don't think they're meeting the needs of Kentucky."
But poll respondent Suzanne Savage of Louisville said she likes Conway's personality and his pro-union stance.
"I supported Conway when he, I believe he was running for senator or whatever it was. I just liked the guy," Savage said. "I worked on his campaign as a matter of fact. He's very personable, met his mother and father as well, and I just like the guy. They support the unions."
In a regional breakdown, Conway was bested only by Comer in Western and Eastern Kentucky and by Scott in Eastern Kentucky.
Comer leads Conway in Western Kentucky 46 percent to 40 percent and in Eastern Kentucky 44 percent to 40 percent.
Scott, who calls Pikeville home, narrowly edged out Conway in Eastern Kentucky, 40 percent to 38 percent.
Conway, who has suggested that he will make his lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency a key part of his strategy to win over conservative Democrats, is viewed by 58 percent of likely Democratic primary voters as someone who would take a "balanced approach" between the coal industry and environmentalists.
Eleven percent of Democrats said Conway sides too much with the coal industry, and 12 percent said he sides too much with environmentalists.
But in Eastern Kentucky, where thousands of coal jobs have disappeared, only 5 percent think Conway sides with the coal industry too much, compared with 20 percent who said he sides with environmentalists too much. Fifty percent said he would take a balanced approach.
On the issue of climate change, the poll suggests Conway holds an advantage over his eventual Republican challenger. Conway has said he believes in man-made climate change, while the four Republicans vying to challenge him have said they do not think human activity is changing the Earth's temperature.
Fifty-three percent of voters said they were more likely to support a candidate for governor who believes man-made climate change is occurring. Only 30 percent said they were less likely to support a candidate that holds that belief, and 17 percent said they were unsure.
Those numbers are dramatically different when broken down by party, with only 38 percent of Republicans responding that they would be more likely to support a candidate who thinks man-made climate change is occurring and 48 percent saying they are more likely to support a candidate who does not think that.
Among Democrats, 65 percent said they were more likely to support a candidate who thinks man-made climate change is occurring, compared with 19 percent who were less likely.
Poll respondent Richard Alvey of Clarkson said he grew up on a farm and enjoys hunting and fishing, which has led him to think that climate change is occurring.
"A person in the city won't think about (climate change) that much," Alvey said. "You notice it more than a person in the city would. We used to raise 10 acres of tobacco. You can tell the difference from season to season in how dry it's been. You notice it more than you did when you were younger."
Democratic voters also were asked if they thought Conway was too conservative, too liberal "or just about right."
A majority — 63 percent — answered just about right, while 11 percent said he was too conservative and 13 percent said he was too liberal.
At this point in the race, voters seem divided on whether Conway did the right thing when he declined last year to appeal a federal judge's ruling that struck down the state's same-sex marriage ban.
Of 2,104 registered voters surveyed, 44 percent said Conway did the right thing, 41 percent said he made the wrong decision and 15 percent were undecided. That question has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
"I found out that Conway is the one I'm for," said Carl Kitchen of Sandy Hook. "He's not against the gays. I don't think it matters what gays do one way or another. They can do whatever they want, so there's nothing to get upset about."
Overall, voters narrowly said they trust Democrats to bring jobs to Kentucky more than Republicans, 43 percent to 40 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
"I don't know about the rest of the state, but Wayne County is cold and dying," said respondent Nancy Hale of Monticello. "When you walk into a fast-food restaurant and ask for an application and they tell you they aren't hiring, your town is in trouble."
Edward Hackel, a poll respondent from Lebanon, said he thinks "Republicans would bring jobs, but they'll be low-paying jobs."
"Republicans, generally speaking, are anti-union and they're anti-minimum wage, and I just feel like they're not on my team, so to speak," Hackel said.
Voters also seem undecided about whom they trust more "to make decisions about whether to continue or end the Kynect health insurance exchange."
Forty percent said they trust Republicans more, 39 percent answered Democrats and 21 percent were undecided.