Contentious Kentucky Primary Leaves Republican Governor Hopefuls Hobbled

The hard-fought campaign to be the next governor has damaged each of the most likely Republican nominees ahead of a big opportunity for the party.

At the beginning of 2015, Kentucky Republicans pointed to their competitive, four-way gubernatorial primary as evidence that their party was poised to take over a governor's mansion Democrats have controlled for all but eight of the past 50 years.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader in January, "When I started my career we had to beg people to run for governor. So now you've seen a complete change here. You're going to have a vigorous primary on the Republican side "¦ and I think it's a reflection of the reddening of Kentucky."

Four months later, the nasty and contentious path to Tuesday's GOP primary vote has left some Republican observers unaffiliated with the campaigns second-guessing their ability to recover and defeat the likely Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Jack Conway. Whoever wins Tuesday's Republican primary will enter the general election saddled with baggage that could be difficult to discard quickly.

"I think no matter which of them wins they all sort of have challenges to overcome upon winning the nomination," Louisville-based Republican consultant Scott Jennings said.

"Obviously for Jack Conway's purposes this has played out about as well as you could expect," said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state who now heads the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "They're beating each other up, clearly the candidates don't like each other, a lot of supporters don't like the other candidates. He couldn't have scripted it any better."

While Conway skates to the Democratic nomination without significant opposition, the Republican primary is a toss-up. All public and private polling shows the top three contenders (state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, and 2014 Senate candidate Matt Bevin) running neck and neck. Any of the three could emerge victorious—yet damaged—on Tuesday.

Comer, the only candidate with a statewide win under his belt, has been shaken by public allegations from a former college girlfriend who claims he was physically abusive. Heiner is combatting charges from Comer that he was involved in orchestrating the accusations and is now dogged by the perception that he's a negative campaigner. Bevin, while largely uninvolved in the late-breaking issues enveloping Comer, still is viewed with suspicion by many Kentucky Republicans who disapproved of his tactics in his 2014 Senate primary against McConnell—particularly his refusal to endorse McConnell after the primary was over. McConnell and his allies launched an avalanche of attacks on Bevin during that race for everything from signing an investor letter backing the bank bailouts to attending a pro-cockfighting rally.

The Kentucky Republican Party is scheduled to hold a final statewide Lincoln Day Dinner on May 30, after the primary is over, which was timed to serve as a sort of post-election unity rally.

"I think if you're Matt Bevin, and you're in this very close race, you are really regretting that you didn't take fifteen minutes last summer to hold a press conference with Mitch McConnell and endorse him," said Jennings, who was a senior adviser to pro-McConnell outside groups last year. "Because had you done that and you had just been a team player, you likely would be in a stronger position today, and you wouldn't be so worried about the future of your ability to unite the party if you happen to get this nomination."

McConnell is expected to support whichever Republican candidate wins Tuesday, but a spokesperson for McConnell's office this week declined to comment on whether he'd support Bevin specifically, telling the Associated Press that the senator would "address the question after a nominee is chosen."

Asked if Bevin could realistically unite the party in the way needed to successfully take on Conway, Jennings said earnestly, "I don't know."

Observers still consider Comer and Heiner more likely to be able to beat Conway, but Comer's ordeal confronting long simmering rumors about an abusive college relationship are unlikely to disappear overnight. Given that the allegations center on events from around two decades ago, they may never be definitively proven or disproven. The one potential tangible piece of evidence marking Comer's rocky relationship is paperwork from a 1991 visit to an abortion clinic that Comer's then-girlfriend, Marilyn Thomas, said he escorted her to, and which Thomas said remains in a safety deposit box. Comer has denied that the visit happened.

Grayson said Comer's biggest problem, if he wins Tuesday, is that his strategy in dealing with the accusations so far has been to blame Heiner. But "if Heiner goes away and the allegations are still there, they're still there," Grayson said.

"It doesn't appear to be going away if he's the nominee, and I think that's a problem for him," Grayson continued.

Heiner would emerge without the same sharp-edged negatives that Bevin and Comer have collected over the past year, but the contested primary has still taken its toll. Heiner ran on his record as a businessman but was attacked for claiming to be a job creator. Heiner founded a commercial real estate firm that constructs industrial parks. Though his company employs "fewer than five" people, Heiner has claimed credit for attracting "over 4,000" jobs. Heiner has since shifted from calling himself a job creator to using the title "job attractor." Plus, his running mate's husband was in contact with a blogger who was peddling the Comer rumors for some time before they came out.

None of this is to say victory is out of reach for Republicans in November. The national Democratic brand remains woefully unpopular in Kentucky. Though Democrats currently control five of six statewide offices and a majority in the state House, they've lost their grip on seats at the federal level, and McConnell's expensive general election wasn't even close in 2014 despite his primary. The conventional wisdom is that Kentucky is well on its way to becoming a uniformly red state. And the burden to prove that it is not rests squarely on Democrats and their ability to win the governor's race this fall.

But while the crowded Republican primary was a sign of the GOP's opportunity, the contest itself may have made the party's ultimate goal more difficult to reach.