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

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, left, Independent Drew Curtis and Republican Matt Bevin participated in the Bluegrass Poll Gubernatorial Debate in September.
Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, left, Independent Drew Curtis and Republican Matt Bevin participated in the Bluegrass Poll Gubernatorial Debate in September. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — Watching Tuesday's gubernatorial Q&A (can't bring myself to call what transpired at Bellarmine University a "debate"), I began to wonder how many Kentucky Democrats/Republicans also watching the first televised forum featuring all three candidates might be saying to themselves, "Gee, I wish Drew Curtis headed up our party's ticket."

Perhaps 40 years' experience with independent gubernatorial candidates who tended to be "characters," or even "caricatures," caused me to set the bar way low for the FARK.com founder. Perhaps the blah performances of Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and Republican businessman Matt Bevin spotlighted Curtis' candor and humor to an undeserved degree.

Whatever the reason, Curtis came across as the candidate most comfortable in his own skin, the candidate who answered every question without bobbing and weaving and the candidate quickest on his mental feet to call his opponents to task when they did bob and weave.

After Bevin totally ignored a question about releasing his tax returns, using his time to address a separate issue, Curtis drew possibly the biggest laugh of the night by saying, "So, I'll actually answer this question (about releasing tax returns)."

When Conway repeated his lame excuse for not responding to Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins' request for the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into possible official misconduct charges against Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, Curtis rightly responded by noting you cannot allow public officials to use religious beliefs as an excuse for ignoring the law.

Davis cited religious beliefs in refusing to issue any marriage licenses rather than issue them to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage is a right protected by the U.S. Constitution. After several couples sued her, U.S. District Judge David Bunning eventually sent her to jail for several days for contempt of court.

Conway's explanation for declining to appoint a special prosecutor is that Davis' case is under the control of Bunning and the federal courts, which is true insofar as the question of same-sex couples' marriage rights is concerned. But the question of whether Davis should be prosecuted for official misconduct under state law for refusing to issue marriage licenses during the two-plus months between the Supreme Court decision and the time she was remanded to jail for contempt is a totally separate matter not under the control of federal courts. That question falls under the jurisdiction of state prosecutors and state courts.

Conway sits atop the state prosecution food chain. Although Kim Davis is the only county clerk who has been sued in federal court and sent to jail for contempt, she isn't the only one who has refused to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. By failing to act in her case, Conway is enabling these other clerks to continue refusing to do their duty.

Drew Curtis cannot win in November. But his performance Tuesday should assure his participation in any gubernatorial public forum or Q&A going forward.

And if he continues to bring the candor and humor while Bevin and Conway bring only the blah, Curtis will gain enough support to make him the determining factor in who does win. Even a high single-digit percentage of the vote in Curtis' favor could prove decisive in the outcome.

Independents almost always draw votes from the middle of the political spectrum. Curtis is no exception. So, their respective parties' bases become all the more important to Bevin and Conway. And that's problematic for Conway.

Although Bevin reportedly has ignored the Republican Party's establishment and structure during this campaign, the hatred of President Barack Obama is as strong in Kentucky as it is anywhere in the country. So, the anti-Democrat turnout in November is assured.

But Conway's reluctance to act in the Kim Davis case has to temper enthusiasm for him among the more liberal elements of the Democratic base. And they are the voters he can least afford to have stay home come Election Day.