Despite Lack Of Cash, Republicans Keeping Statewide Races Close
Despite outpacing Republicans in fundraising, Democrats running for statewide office in Kentucky are still in tight races.
Political observers say skepticism with the top of the GOP ticket has kept Republican donors in the stable while Democrats on the ballot, most of whom have served in statewide office or have party ties, have been able to tap into a deep fundraising network.
Still, it hasn't led to a boost in the polls. In the latest statewide Bluegrass Poll, races from governor to attorney general remain either close or tied.
“There’s no question that the races seem to be closer than you would expect if you look at it from the advantages of fundraising and incumbency,” said Doug Alexander, who served as a spokesman for former Republican gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner.
Heiner, an engineer and former Louisville metro councilman, lost a bruising four-way primary race after infusing his campaign with $5 million of his own money.
The winner, Louisville businessman and Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin, has similarly funded his general election campaign with his own cash.
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As of the last campaign finance reporting deadline on Oct. 7, Bevin reported raising $1.7 million — nearly $1 million of which was his own money. Democratic candidate Jack Conway tripled those numbers; he reported raising $6.1 million from donors. Conway did not contribute to his own campaign.
“In the case of someone who hasn’t spent their life building a political network and a political base, it’s very difficult to compete in fundraising, and you almost have to turn to your own resources in many cases,” Alexander said.
Yet Bevin trails Conway by just 5 points, according to the most recent statewide Bluegrass Poll.
The political mood in the state appears to favor Republicans. Public distaste for Democratic President Barack Obama, who has a 31 percent approval rating in Kentucky, has buoyed GOP candidates, said University of Kentucky political science professor Don Gross.
“The best thing that could happen to Democrats in the near future is not have Obama president," he said. "His numbers are so bad in this particular state."
Democratic candidate Jack Conway has distanced himself from the president and touts his record of suing the Environmental Protection Agency for its forthcoming power plant emission regulations. When asked why the race is so close despite his strong fundraising, he put the onus on the President.
"I readily acknowledge that the president is unpopular here, particularly in eastern Kentucky, they feel like he’s damaged the economy. That’s why I took on Obama’s EPA," Conway said during a Kentucky Public Radio news special last week.
Republicans have registered to vote at a faster rate than Democrats in Kentucky over the past several years. Democrats make up 53 percent of Kentucky voters, while 39 percent are Republicans. In 2012, 55 percent were Democrats and 38 percent were Republicans.
Bevin’s outsider status has contributed to his lack of fundraising, said political consultant and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ward.
“I think that has to do with their nominee not having, apparently, Republicans united behind him,” Ward said.
Bevin famously refused to endorse Sen. Mitch McConnell after losing to him in the Republican primary for McConnell’s seat last year. McConnell has provided endorsements for Bevin throughout this year’s campaign, but the support hasn’t triggered Republican donors.
And that lack of cash may have trickled down the ballot, where most Republican candidates haven’t been lighting up the fundraising board despite close races.
Democratic candidate for attorney general Andy Beshear, son of outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear, has raised $2.7 million during the general election campaign, eclipsing Republican Whitney Westerfield’s $110,321. According to the Bluegrass Poll, that race is tied — despite Beshear’s fundraising edge and the fact that the elder Beshear is relatively popular, with a 50 percent approval rating.
Similarly, Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen raised $774,590 for his reelection bid, overshadowing Republican candidate Mike Harmon’s $28,968. Despite having numerous high-profile audits, including one that revealed corruption in former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer’s office and another that uncovered more than 3,000 untested rape kits in the state, Edelen has just a two-point lead over Harmon, a Republican state representative from Danville.
Outside of conventional fundraising, political action committees have been very active during this year's statewide races, in some cases filling the gaps left by low fundraising totals.
Westerfield's campaign for attorney general received help from the Republican Attorneys General Association in the form of $2.2 million worth of advertising. The ads accuse Beshear of milking his father’s political connections and associate him with President Obama.
Andy Beshear has been supported by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which put up $630,000 for a commercial accusing Westerfield of skipping work to get pedicures.
The Kentucky Family Values PAC has spent $3.5 million in ads deriding Matt Bevin as “bailout Bevin,” accusing him of being a tax delinquent and flip-flopping on issues.
The Republican Governors Association spent a little over $3 million on ads for Bevin that tried to link Conway to Obama. The RGA pulled the ads last month.
Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes has a little more breathing room than her fellow Democrats. She's ahead of Republican challenger Steve Knipper by 8 points in the latest Bluegrass Poll. She raised $615,131 for her reelection campaign, compared with Knipper’s $31,413.