Politics & Government

For GOP gubernatorial candidates, Lincoln Day circuit ends with a whimper, not a bang

Matt Bevin, James Comer, Hal Heiner and Will Scott prior to a GOP gubernatorial debate at KET Studios in Lexington, Ky., Monday, May 11, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins
Matt Bevin, James Comer, Hal Heiner and Will Scott prior to a GOP gubernatorial debate at KET Studios in Lexington, Ky., Monday, May 11, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

FALLS OF ROUGH — On the airwaves and in the newspapers, they are tearing each other to shreds.

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But on the Lincoln Day dinner circuit, the four Republican candidates for governor have been well-behaved, offering their stump speeches and avoiding taking direct swipes at each other.

With the election just days away, the candidates all appeared in the same place together for the last time Saturday night, pleading with a sleepy crowd of fewer than 100 people at the Rough River State Park and Resort.

For some longer than others, the last few months have included Friday and Saturday night dinners with party officials and supporters in every corner of the state.

That long tour came to an end Saturday night, not with the bang even a casual observer of the race might expect, but with a whimper and general agreement among the candidates and crowd alike that the end of what has become a very ugly race is near.

There was no mention of allegations of abuse against James Comer or of the role members of Hal Heiner's campaign played in promoting rumors of those allegations.

Matt Bevin didn't accuse anybody of "soiling the bed," and Will T. Scott continued to tell crowds how much he loved them.

Comer, the commissioner of agriculture who has spent the last two weeks denying that he ever physically assaulted his college girlfriend, was the first of the gubernatorial candidates to speak.

"Tonight marks something special for a lot of candidates who are traveling ... this is the very last Lincoln Day dinner," Comer said.

Comer, like the rest of the field, stuck to his well-worn remarks, boasting of a record at the Department of Agriculture of efficiency, transparency and accountability.

"If you elect us, we won't let you down," Comer said. "We can beat Jack Conway in the fall."

Scott, who retired from the state Supreme Court before announcing his candidacy, eschewed the microphone, pacing and talking about the need for expanded gaming in the state as though he were back in the courtroom.

The retired justice spoke passionately about the financial problems plaguing the state, acknowledging that a number of preachers have criticized his stance on gaming while arguing that slot machines are already in place at spots like Kentucky Downs.

"You got more gambling that I saw in Reno," he said. "You think you're avoiding gaming by criticizing me? No."

Heiner noted that Tuesday will mark 63 weeks that he has been in the race and traveling the state as a candidate, making no mention of his latest ad that focused on the allegations against Comer.

Instead the Louisville businessman finished as he started, talking about his experience in the private sector and the need to follow the leads of Indiana and Michigan in electing a businessman and "an outsider" to the governor's mansion.

"Let's make Kentucky first," Heiner said. "I know we can do it."

Bevin, also leaving the microphone, focused on veterans and the abysmal turnout projections.

He told the crowd he met with a veteran earlier in the day who had survivor's guilt after his tour overseas and had tried to take his own life five times.

"What are we doing in this country?" Bevin said. "How badly do you want a better America?"

Bevin only nodded at the "absolutely different approaches" and different "methods to the madness" that the different campaigns have employed, but he mainly challenged the crowd not to "miss this opportunity."

"Shame on us that we won't even see 20 percent of Kentuckians vote," Bevin said.

All in all, it was a subdued affair considering the fierceness of the most negative race in recent memory.

And as there will likely be a lot of hurt feelings after Tuesday night, a number of Republicans sought to begin the effort to unify the party early.

Scott Lasley, chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, offered a few words after the candidates spoke, saying that "the inter-squad scrimmage is over Tuesday."

"The real fight begins on Wednesday," Lasley said. "We're going to have some wounds that will take some time to heal, but the real fight's in November. Not against each other."

And not at the last Lincoln Day dinner of the cycle.