FRANKFORT (May 14) - Gov. Steve Beshear isn’t on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election, but he has skin in the game — and not just because the Republican primary will decide his opponent in the Nov. 8 general election.
It now appears that state Senate President David Williams of Burkesville will get a majority of the vote in his Republican contest with tea party favorite Phil Moffett and Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw — after he outspends them by perhaps 10 to 1 and 100 to 1, respectively.
But a majority of what vote? Williams spent about $1 million through April, but turnout in the primary will probably be just under 10 percent of registered voters, or about 100,000 votes. Such a light turnout could indicate that Williams and his running mate, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, have yet to build the strong support and momentum in their own party that they will need to persuade independents and Democrats to reject Beshear and former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.
To be sure, Kentucky Republicans aren’t much for voting in primaries. Four years ago, they had a three-way race with a weakened incumbent (Ernie Fletcher), a recently ousted congresswoman (Anne Northup) and a self-financing millionaire (Billy Harper), but only 20 percent of registered GOP voters cast ballots.
Still, Williams needs to come out of the primary looking as strong as possible in order to attract the money he will need to compete with Beshear, who has raised almost $5 million, has more than $3 million in the bank and wields the power of incumbency. The lower the turnout and the lower Williams’ percentage of vote, the worse “market signals” it will give to potential investors in his underdog candidacy.
Beshear’s other skin in Tuesday’s game is the candidacy of former Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker for secretary of state, the office to which he appointed her early this year to fill the unexpired term of Trey Grayson.
Though she is the incumbent, Walker is the underdog, because she’s opposed by Lexington lawyer Alison Lundergan Grimes — the daughter of big-time caterer Jerry Lundergan, the former state Democratic chairman who has an adversarial history with Beshear going back to the 1970s, when they represented Lexington districts in the state House.
When Jerry Lundergan sets his mind to a task, he is relentless. He and his daughter have run rings around Walker and Beshear, organizationally and financially. Grimes’ election to statewide office could complete the vindication Lundergan has surely wanted since his violation of a legislative ethics law more than 20 years ago pretty much ordained that he would never be on a ballot again. And, of course, Grimes’ primary victory would be an embarrassment to factional foe Beshear. It doesn’t take a caterer to know how delicious that would be to her father.
But the race, which has the highest profile in television advertising, may illustrate the folly of holding elections for largely ministerial offices.
Grimes has never held public office, but her TV commercial displays her winning personality and popular support, and says she is the “most qualified” candidate, without elaboration. Pressed about that, she told me she’s familiar with the office because she has dealt with it as a lawyer- she has a plan for making it easier for business interests to navigate- and she has talked with county clerks and others who must deal with the secretary of state and the election board.
The best argument for electing a secretary of state is that she or he is the chairman and swing vote on the State Board of Elections, and thus the state’s top election official. Walker alludes to that in her TV ad. Grimes’ ad says nothing about the office’s responsibility for elections, but she comes across as the stimulating candidate. Walker is staid by comparison, and stimulating usually beats staid in a low-turnout election.
In her commercial, Walker raises the stakes for Beshear by saying up front that he appointed her. The Democratic governor polls very well among Democrats, but gets lower marks from many county-level party activists — and in a low-turnout election, they will be more influential. Some may see the race as a chance to vent some steam against Beshear when he is not on the ballot.
There are few good reasons to have an elected treasurer or agriculture commissioner, but this year’s primaries for the latter office have at least one redeeming quality: an array of mostly qualified candidates with an interesting collection of skills and backgrounds.
State Rep. Jamie Comer of Tompkinsville is the favorite to beat Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger in the Republican primary and has some Democratic support because Democrats didn’t coalesce behind one or two candidates and are having a five-way primary.
The qualified Democrats are Richmond lawyer-farmer John Lackey, a former state senator and the populist in the race- former Agriculture Department employee Stewart Gritton of Lawrenceburg; and B.D. Wilson, a former rural-roads commissioner and Montgomery County judge-executive backed by former Gov. Brereton Jones.
There is good reason to elect a state auditor, but that primary may show that voters base their choices on names, not backgrounds.
State Rep. Addia Wuchner of Burlington appears more qualified than bankrupt builder-developer John Kemper of Lexington to take on Democrat Adam Edelen, but Wuchner’s unusual names will hurt her. So could the fact that Kemper is on the tea party slate.
Others slated by the tea party include Comer and former U.S. Senate candidate Bill Johnson of Elkton, who is in the Republican primary for secretary of state with former federal official Hilda Legg of Somerset. That race is the clearest example of the tea party vs. the state Republican establishment and is worth watching. Most of these races are, and are worth your vote.
Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own, not those of the University of Kentucky.