Help Wanted: Governor Needed To Run Kentucky

Jack Conway, current attorney general for Kentucky and Democratic candidate for governor.

Jack Conway, current attorney general for Kentucky and Democratic candidate for governor.

Democrats in Kentucky have a problem. Jack Conway, their candidate for governor, is not exactly likable.

Democrats On primary election day in May, Conway was up 11 percentage points, 48 to 37 over the Republican nominee Matt Bevin. That lead shrank to three percentage points in the latest Bluegrass Poll, where Conway was leading 45 to 42, with 13 percent undecided. Factor in the margin of error being plus or minus 3.8 percent, and you have a good old-fashioned barn burner.

It remains early in this race, as you can see by the number of undecided voters. Many haven’t given either candidate a solid look yet. But the overarching message coming from this race is that the electorate is underwhelmed by both candidates.

Conway is the current state’s attorney general. He has done a fine job in that office since 2008 of prosecuting wrongdoers, seizing assets and winning judgments that have reaped financial rewards for Kentucky.

Launching a gubernatorial campaign from the AG’s office is a natural progression, but outside of Frankfort, few know who Conway is, and on first look he doesn’t always make the best impression.

Fair or not, his appearance gives off a certain arrogance, which feeds into his Duke problem. Conway received his undergraduate degree from this prestigious Durham, NC institution, which after researching I found cost an estimated $64,653 to attend last year.

In basically any other state holding a degree from such a highly-touted school would be seen as a positive, but in Kentucky there is zero Duke love. It’s a college basketball thing.

The University of Kentucky is a blue blood program and college basketball royalty. Down on Tobacco Road you can find two of UK’s natural rivals for college basketball supremacy, UNC and Duke.

The North Carolina program is respected, while Duke is hated. Mention the Blue Devils around Kentucky and you will get an adverse reaction, which has everything to do with the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final > Duke versus Kentucky > Christian Laettner > Overtime > The Shot.

Conway’s origin of education isn’t a killer by itself, but it’s a problem. It fits a growing narrative that is silently being developed. He can try wearing all the rumpled suits he wants in an effort to look like an everyday-guy, but he never looks comfortable in them.

Opinion coming out of some state government circles portrays Conway as self-serving. Few accomplishments occur around Smiling Jack that don’t involve a press conference where he is taking credit for the triumph, and trying to make it sound like he did all the heavy lifting.

This trait is far from unique in a politician, but if you don’t have a broader appeal and better skill set to camouflage your intentions, then your self-serving interests are laid bare through the transparency of your inability.

There is something about Conway’s demeanor that screams he is trying too hard, and this furthers an aromatic sense of entitlement that is synonymous with Duke and its basketball program. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why Conway is running, aside from Gov. Beshear being term-limited.

His message of creating good-paying jobs, investing in early childhood education and holding the line on taxes is not particularly sexy and has yet to resonate with voters.

Democrats have screwed merit state employees for eight years by not giving them incremental cost-of-living wage increases as required. The state employee pension system is near worst in the nation, and the teachers’ pension fund is in shambles. Conway needs to come up with concrete answers for how he is going to fix these problems, increase tax revenue, balance the budget — and stop trying to be Beshear-lite.

I hear people making the argument that Conway is the lesser of two evils. That isn’t saying much as neither of these candidates is particularly distinguished. Little enthusiasm is being generated by either camp, which translates into lukewarm support, and will manifest itself in a lethargic voter turnout come November.

Even with a hotly contested four-way primary for the Republican nomination, voter turnout was anemic. Bevin triumphed somewhat surprisingly, considering he is best known as the Republican primary candidate that Mitch McConnell drubbed before moving on to re-election last year by massacring Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Matt Bevin, business man and Republican candidate for governor.

Matt Bevin, businessman and Republican candidate for governor.

Whether Bevin can unite the Republican base remains to be seen. Likely this is more dependent upon McConnell giving his full blessing to Bevin and turning over the keys to his well-oiled voter turnout machine necessary to push the Republican tally.

It’s not Conway’s fault that he did not have a legitimate candidate running against him in the primary. Still, competition benefited the Republicans immensely, as they increased their brand awareness and name recognition.

Whereas Conway had token opposition requiring no effort to overcome, so the Democrat chose to save his cash and ran virtually no ads in the primary.

The good news is Conway is ahead. The bad news is he’s not at 50 percent. Having previously run three statewide races, Conway should be up more.

Normally if I saw this kind of poll result I would suggest the candidate needs to redouble his or her efforts on the campaign trail, make a bunch of appearances that could create some momentum and garner voter support — but Jack is a liability in person.

In fact the high point for the Conway campaign may have been primary day. He had kept his voice and image off the airwaves up till then. There was limited information about his policy stances, so from a polling standpoint it was a generic Democrat going up against a battered Republican nominee.

That scenario earned Conway an 11-point lead in May. Then his image was paired with his party, he started making appearances, opening his mouth and Bevin went to work on him.

Two other factors are conspiring against Conway to win election. One is the Louisville curse. Since 1792, only two Louisville-based candidates have gone on to serve as governor, the last being Lawrence Wetherby in 1950. You bet Conway is from Louisville.

Secondly, there is the Obama factor. The president continues to be unpopular in Kentucky, despite the success of kynect, the local brand of Obamacare. Bevin would be smart to keep banging that same tired tune about how awful Obama is for Kentucky and that Conway is his local representative.

Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and Senate majority leader.

Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator and Senate Majority Leader.

It worked like a charm for McConnell in his re-election race with Grimes. It’s a painful strategy to keep regurgitating but effective. In an off-year election where both candidates lack any true name identity or sizzle, the Obama X-factor may be enough to win the day.

I would like to say Conway learned something from how Grimes lost to McConnell, but he seems to be running the same prevent defense. He wants to straddle both sides of the fence and not say anything too polarizing that might detract support.

This play-safe strategy ends up making a candidate stand for nothing. Grimes refused to adequately acknowledge how well kynect had done in its first year. Nor did she advocate for the idea behind the Affordable Care Act sincerely, which in a state like Kentucky, where there is a significant population living below the poverty line and job creation remains problematic, kynect continues to offer people who don’t have access to care a chance to get free or discounted coverage.

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, KY secretary of state.

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, KY secretary of state.

I find it hard to imagine that had Grimes fully embraced the ACA and kynect that she would have lost any worse, and at least she would have gone down standing for something.

The fact of the matter is America is in far better shape today under President Obama than when he took office from President Bush. Statistically it isn’t even close. So I would rather see Conway lose with dignity while embracing a Democratic platform than watch him try to contort himself into some faux-Republican hoping to eek out a tainted victory.

With Bevin, like him or not, he stands for something. The man will give you his opinion and tell you his stance on an issue. I’m not saying I would vote for him. I think Kentucky has progressed too far in elevating itself above most other southern states to now install a pro-business leader that might remove education, healthcare and social responsibility as priorities.

I don’t want to see Kentucky recede into one of these states that tries to govern based on faith-based decisions. It’s a delusional policy that precludes a state from being competitive in a global economy.

But Conway needs to define himself and articulate his vision for a stronger Kentucky. Democrats have not been the best financial stewards of the Commonwealth. Voters may be feeling it’s time to give the other party a try.

Conway has yet to show he is broad enough to expand his message and likeability to make people forget the shortfalls of his party.

With the annual Fancy Farm political picnic having taken place the weekend before last, the general election season has officially begun. Yet Conway still seems to be running under the radar, hoping to use personal appearances over advertising, to conserve funds while many voters have yet to dial in to the election. The problem with this strategy is if he waits too long folks will begin to decide Bevin is an acceptable alternative.

In the most recent Bluegrass Poll, too much of Conway’s support is coming from conservatives. More than 1 in 4 of those who consider themselves “conservative” said they plan to vote for Conway, as did 15 percent of those who described themselves as “very conservative.” I wouldn’t want to be pinning my hopes of a victory on that formula continuing.

Conway is up 30-points in Louisville, but Bevin is strong in Western Kentucky, and underperforming in Northern Kentucky, a hotbed of Tea Party activism, where the Republican scored large in the primary.

Interestingly, Conway is holding a 44 to 41 lead in Eastern Kentucky, but that seems unlikely to hold either.

Conway needs to recognize the urgency in Bevin polling 42 percent of the vote. Kentucky is 38 percent Republican. That means Bevin is pulling away Democratic support already.

Of the Democrats polled, 20 percent are supporting Bevin over Conway. That’s a big number by itself, but Bevin doesn’t even necessarily require Democratic votes to win.

If enough Democrats decide to not support Conway by staying home on Election Day, that’s the same as voting Republican.

Now things start to look up for Conway with Drew Curtis on the ballot as an independent. He splits the Republican vote and Conway’s lead increased to 5 percentage points over Bevin, with Conway polling 43 percent, Bevin 38 and Curtis, of Lexington, 8 percent.

It would be expecting a lot from fatigued voters to give this gubernatorial race too much thought. The public will run each candidate through a look and smell test when they are ready. I’m guessing most will make their minds up quick, as there isn’t much being offered.

It’s a shame these are actually the only two candidates voters can choose from because neither is a compelling selection.

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