Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Viewers not excited by debate, but some are slightly swayed each way; some give Bevin edge over Conway

By Kevin Erpenbeck, Megan Ingros, Ben Johnson and Jerry Seale
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

The major-party candidates for Kentucky governor had a good debate Tuesday night, but didn’t prompt major changes in voters’ opinions, according to interviews of likely voters around the state. 

“The contestants are not exactly fireballs,” quipped Iva Frank, a 68-year-old AT&T retiree from Crestwood. “But I’m still not changing my vote.”

Frank, a supporter of Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, said she learned nothing new from the debate and even went so far as labeling it as “dull and boring.”

That appeared to be a common feeling among the 10 people interviewed, who were selected from the participants in the most recent Bluegrass State poll of likely voters who said they were willing to grant follow-up interviews.

“I heard the same old he-said, she-said lies,” said Carson Godbey, 56, an undecided Republican from Russell Springs, said. “They never come across with actual issues. They just blame each other.”

However, the debate between Conway and Republican Matt Bevin at Centre College in Danville did changed some opinions.

Ben Marks, 81, a south Louisville retiree, was also undecided before the debate, but said he is now going to vote for Conway.

“I think it was pretty well even tonight, both were doing the same thing, making statements,” said Marks, who worked at the old Naval Ordnance Station.

Marks, who told the poll that he leans Democratic, said in the interview that he disagreed with Bevin’s positions on several issues, including a “right to work” law, same-sex marriage and the economy.

“Bevin was talking like he could straighten out our financial problems and things in ways that I don’t think will work,” Marks said.

But Bevin, a Louisville businessman, did gain some approval from Democrat Devina Witt of Corbin during the debate sponsored by WAVE-TV, AARP and Centre College.

Witt, 57, was leaning toward Conway heading into the debate but said afterward that she is on the fence and “could easily swing to Bevin.” She said he won the debate.

In particular, Witt disliked that Conway trumpeted shutting down pain clinics that let people abuse prescription drugs without mentioning that the crackdown has led – in her opinion – to an epidemic of heroin overdoses.

Witt also disapproved of Conway’s stance on Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. She said Davis’ religious rights were infringed.

However, Witt said she was unhappy that Bevin refuses to release his tax returns: “Why not bring them out and show them?”

The proposed right-to-work law, which would prohibit employees from being forced to pay union dues, also caught some viewers’ attention. Take Leona Starks, a 55-year-old cook from western Louisville, who is a supporter of Conway.

“Jack really impressed me stating the federal law and what it really is, and it impressed me that he stood his ground,” Starks said.

However, despite her political leanings, Starks said she thought Bevin won the debate.

“I’m still for Conway,” Starks said. “He was less on point for me, but I know the points he meant to say. But he just wasn’t there tonight.”

Thomas Hunt, 19, a church volunteer in Winchester and a firm Bevin supporter, also thought his candidate won the debate.

“Jack Conway had the guilty smile all night like he knew he was wrong,” Hunt said.

He added that Bevin separated himself in the debate because Conway’s desire to raise the minimum wage will make Kentucky’s small business problem worse. Hunt said he wasn’t worried about Bevin’s unwillingness to release his tax returns.

Strong Republican Gregg Turner, 68, of Louisville, said he thought both candidates did well. The retired property maintenance man added that he liked what Conway had to say about his plans for education and the economy, but he still strongly supports Bevin.

“He handled himself well up there today and what he had to say was interesting,” Turner said of Conway. “But Bevin is a more savvy guy with a lot more structured plans.”

Despite a contentious exchange between the candidates about arming teachers to deal with school shootings, none of the 10 people interviewed said that issue would have an impact on how they vote.

Mike Abbott, a 64-year-old retired truck driver from Annville, said he was originally for independent candidate Drew Curtis -- who was not invited to participate in the debate -- but is now leaning toward Conway

Abbott, a Teamster who said he leans Republican but thinks the party “is not what it used to be,” said he didn’t approve of Bevin’s opposition to raising the minimum wage.

“What good is a job if people starve to death?” he asked. “Anyone who works should be able to earn a real living.”

And like most of the people who were interviewed, he didn’t think any candidate won the debate.
“Both guys are probably top-of-the-line good people,” he said. “It’s just a matter of differences of opinions.”

The writers are students in an advanced journalism course at the University of Kentucky, Covering the Governor's Race, taught by John Winn Miller and Al Cross. Thanks to the sponsors of the Bluegrass Poll (The Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader, WHAS-TV and WKYT-TV) for making the poll respondents available for interviews.

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