Saturday, June 28, 2014

No rooster-fighting drama next year? Dems' gubernatorial race may be over before it begins

Given the tenor of many of the past several open primaries for the gubernatorial nomination on the Democrats' side, we were looking forward to another rock-em sock-em campaign next winter and spring.

But are we -- and the rest of Kentucky's political aficionados -- going to be deprived of the drama and vitriol in 2015? Early signs say the Democrats may be trying to consolidate support early behind one candidate, eliminating a down and dirty primary.

So far, only one Democrat, Attorney General Jack Conway, has announced his candidacy. Two oft-mentioned candidates, former Auditor Crit Luallen and current Auditor Adam Edelen, have said they won't be running.

Even though a few other prominent Democrats are said to be considering entering the race, they seem to be waiting until after this year's U.S. Senate race between Alison Lundergan Grimes and Mitch McConnell is over before announcing.

In the meantime, a number of influential party bosses have already thrown their support to Conway. In addition to Luallen, who was Conway's mentor as well as Edelen's, former governor and senator Wendell Ford and John Yarmuth, the only Democrat in Kentucky's congressional delegation, have announced early endorsements of Conway even though no one else is running.

Are they trying to clear the field to avoid a divisive primary in an election year in which a Republican is thought to have a better-than-average chance of winning?

Who knows, but we're afraid they're going to bring down the curtain on some certain political drama.

We've been watching Kentucky politics for decades now. We have faint memories of John Y. Brown's late entry and whirlwind campaign in 1979, but the first race we really paid attention to was in 1983, the close contest between Martha Layne Collins, former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane and eastern Kentucky's Dr. Grady Stumbo.

Four years later, a particularly nasty campaign between Brown and then-Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear opened the door for businessman Wallace Wilkinson to win in a crowded field that also included Stumbo as well as former Gov. Julian Carroll. Wilkinson's signature issue was the creation of the state lottery, and his campaign brought national prominence to a consultant named James Carville.

In 1991, the fireworks weren't quite as loud or bright as Lt. Gov. Brereton Jones, a former Republican from West Virginia, moved up the ladder. The oddest part about that campaign was the presence of Wilkinson's wife, Martha, in the race because Jones and Wilkinson had not enjoyed a good working relationship. Martha Wilkinson dropped out about three weeks before the primary, and the race was not a headline-grabber.

The 1995 primary wasn't full of animosity, either. Paul Patton was the first candidate to run on a slate (he chose Dr. Steve Henry from Louisville) and was the first governor who was eligible to succeed himself. He wasn't challenged for renomination and cruised to victory in the general election. We still believe that Mitch McConnell made a deal with him about not pushing a Republican candidate against Patton in 1999 if Patton would not run against him for re-election to the Senate.

So it wasn't until 2003 that there was another Democrat primary, and it was probably the nastiest one we've ever seen. Attorney General Ben Chandler was the front-runner, but was under siege from Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford. Less than a week before the election, Chandler launched a television ad featuring a woman who attempted to personally blame Lunsford for the death of her mother at one of the nursing homes Lunsford owned. Lunsford didn't have time to release a counter ad, so he dropped out of the race and endorsed House Speaker Jody Richards. When Chandler beat Richards, Lunsford ended up endorsing Republican nominee Ernie Fletcher because he was so angry over Chandler's dirty trick.

With Fletcher winning in 2003, Democrats had to regroup, and the open primary of 2007 was mostly devoid of rancor. Beshear was running against a group that included Henry and Lunsford, but both of them brought baggage to their campaigns. State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, who also had plenty of personal baggage that was well-known to political insiders but not by the general public, dropped out of the running and endorsed Beshear. Richards was back in the race, and his loss probably sealed his fate as House speaker.

We were really hoping for a repeat of 2003 or 1987 in next year's race. We really wanted to see a blood-letting among the Democrats. That's beginning to look increasingly unlikely.

By the time the U.S. Senate race is decided, so many prominent Democrats may have jumped on the Conway bandwagon that speculative candidates like Dan Mongiardo or Greg Stumbo may have nowhere to turn to for support or financial donations. It may be the Republicans who are treated to a hostile campaign if (when) Jamie Comer jumps in against Hal Heiner.

We'll continue to hope for an explosive Democrat gubernatorial race, but the odds are looking slimmer. That's too bad, because catfighting among the donkeys and roosters is always highly entertaining.

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