Saturday, September 12, 2015

In a quiet race, gay marriage steals the focus from other issues; first debate with all 3 candidates is Tuesday night

By Matt Young
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

In 2004 Kentucky voters passed by a 3-1 margin a state constitutional amendment defining marriage to be between one man and one woman. You’d be forgiven for assuming the initiative was on the ballot again this year.

The governor's race between Republican businessman Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway has been conspicuously quiet. “People like to know their governor, and I don't think either of these guys have done that with the people of Kentucky yet,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo told cn|2’s Pure Politics.

The lack of focus on the Nov. 3 election has left Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to fill the attention the news media and voters.

Bevin called a federal judge’s jailing of Davis for defying his order to issue marriage licenses “utterly ridiculous,” saying that there is no need to jail someone for First Amendment beliefs, and called on Conway and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to take action to remove clerks’ names from marriage licenses. They said the law doesn’t allow them to do that.

Conway has exercised caution, waiting until after Davis was jailed to make his first comment. He said on Twitter, "I understand that passions are high on both sides of this issue, but we are nation of laws and no one can defy an order from a federal judge."

Asked by the county attorney to appoint a special prosecutor to look into an official-misconduct cases against Davis, Conway first did not respond. After Davis was released on condition that she not interfere with her deputy clerks’ issuance of marriage licenses, Conway said he would not name a special prosecutor because the matter was in federal court.

Conway has been largely mute lately, as he concentrates on raising money and wondering how much personal wealth Bevin will put into the race. His public appearances and media outreach have been almost non-existent since the Aug. 1 Fancy Farm Picnic.

Traditionally the governor’s race heats up after the Labor Day weekend, with a more intense schedule of debates and forums. Conway and Bevin will have their first face-off with independent candidate Drew Curtis at Bellarmine University in Louisville at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15. The debate will be televised on Louisville’s WHAS-11 and Lexington’s WKYT-27; it is sponsored by the stations and their newspaper partners in the Bluegrass Poll, The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The latest Bluegrass Poll, taken in late July, showed Conway leading Bevin 43 to 38 percent, with an error margin of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points (which applies to both numbers). Curtis had 8 percent.

Each side has turned up the rhetorical volume, with new TV ads.

Americans for Prosperity, a ”super PAC” supported by the Koch Brothers of Wichita, is attacking Conway for his support of federal health reform, or “Obamacare,” which it blamed for "a crisis in our hospitals” and “skyrocketing” insurance premiums.

The Kentucky Hospital Association says Obamacare has been a small part of its problems, but worries about future impacts. A national analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that the average premium increase from 2014 to 2015 was effectively zero, while premium increases in the last decade have averaged about 10 percent. Kentucky rate increases for 2016 range from a 25 percent increase by the Kentucky Health Cooperative, which has sold most of the policies on the state’s Kynect insurance exchange, to an 11 percent decrease from WellCare. Other increases are between 5.2 and 12.2 percent.

The Republican Governors Association has been attacking Conway along the same lines, while Bevin hasn’t run ads of his own. Conway’s first attack ad builds on the “East Coast con-man” moniker that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell applied to Bevin last year in their primary battle.

The ad shows Bevin making statements on the campaign trail, then apparently walking them back. It starts out showing Bevin saying, “I was opposed to the Farm Bill because it was an insult to farmers.” The screen then splits and shows him saying that that was “a misrepresentation of what he said.” He has a case; he objected to the bill’s spending for non-farm programs (most of its funds are for nutrition) and the money it funneled to big agribusiness.

The ad gets right that Bevin has backtracked on his opposition to the Medicaid expansion in Kentucky. He initially said that he would end it, but now says he would scale it back.

Beneath the fray is Curtis, CEO of Without the big money that comes with a party nomination, Curtis has been unable to air TV ads, but being an independent underdog comes with its advantages; he can ignore partisanship, and be free to talk about the issues. Curtis has released the most detailed plan to address the state’s underfunded pension system.

As the race heats up expect all three candidates to address other important issues. There will be sparring over the tax code, and how to create additional revenue the state needs; education, including the Common Core standards; and “right to work” legislation, which forbids employers from requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

However, if this summer can be used as a crystal ball for the fall, expect Bevin to continue his defense of Davis, and Conway’s refusal to appeal the gay-marriage ruling that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. State law allowed Conway to do that, but Bevin accuses him of hypocrisy.

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