CONWAY FACES UPHILL BATTLE IN WEST
When Attorney General Jack Conway announced his intention to run for re-election on Friday, he told reporters that he hadn’t been sure that he had the “gas in his tank” for another run. Conway lost a bitter campaign to Rand Paul to replace Senator Jim Bunning in November 2010. Speculation has been swirling on whether he would follow another loser to Paul, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, into private life. Grayson leaves at the end of this month for a job at Harvard.
In reviewing how the Conway vs. Paul race went in West Kentucky, it is clear that Conway lost counties in this end of the state that had long been considered Democratic strongholds. Counties like Daviess, Marshall and Fulton, went for the Republican candidate. Conway and the Kentucky Democratic Party suffered a more devastating loss in Western Kentucky than widely reported.
The election year 2010 was one that brought together elements of a perfect storm that swept voters away from the Democratic Party. Anger on the right, a state growing steadily more segmented and fragmented, a deeply unpopular president with many Kentuckians, comprised the handwriting on the wall for Democratic candidates.
The tea party movement hit with rallies throughout the region in 2009 over the health care bill and 2010 focusing on taxes and the deficit. Rand Paul, whose father Rep. Ron Paul is the patron saint of anti-tax, anti-government activists, came out of nowhere to sweep first the establishment Republican candidate, Grayson, from the scene. Grayson, tall, smart, the choice of GOP insiders in Frankfort and Washington, was a deer in headlights before the onslaught of the right. There was no room to get to the right of Rand Paul and Grayson’s attempts to do so appeared half hearted.
Conway’s strategy for victory in the general election was quite similar to his strategy in his defeat of rival Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the primary. Win big in the central portion of the state and hold his own on both ends. It worked in the primary, due in large part to the last minute endorsement by former Governor Wendell Ford of Owensboro. Conway’s tactics in defeating Mongiardo left many potential Democratic supporters soured on their party’s candidate
Conway, who had worked in the Patton administration, became the candidate of the left to Western Kentuckians, despite Conway’s moderately held views. The problem in 2010 was everyone talking and no one listening. Conway could not break through to the conservative minded rural voter who became convinced that he would be a Nancy Pelosi style Democrat.
Conway’s final bobble, the ad late in the campaign that sought to capitalize on an incident in Paul’s college days (aquabuddha) caught national attention and boomranged back at Conway. Too late to recover the momentum he had been building because of Paul’s own bobbles on the national news, Conway watched his deft destruction of Mongiardo’s political hopes come home to roost.
WEST KENTUCKY BY THE NUMBERS
We looked at 26 counties in West Kentucky from Logan in the east to Ballard in the west. Of those 26 counties, Rand Paul won 22 and Jack Conway 4: Hancock, McLean, Muhlenberg and Union, which he took by 3 votes. Only Muhlenberg gave Conway a healthy margin of 55% of the vote.
Population centers that Conway might have expected to do well in went solidly into the Republican column. Paul won Wendell Ford’s home county, Daviess, (Owensboro) by 54.99%. He won McCracken (Paducah) with 61.28% of the vote. Christian County (Hopkinsville) went to Paul with a 62% margin. Warren County (Bowling Green) gave Paul 61% of the vote. Calloway County (Murray) gave Paul a 58-41 margin of victory.
Rural counties that had voted for Conway for AG deserted him for Paul. Fulton County narrowly went to Paul by 34 votes. Ballard, Hickman and Carlisle Counties all gave Paul more than 55% margins of victory.
Of 231,174 votes cast, Paul received 132,626 (56%) and Conway took 98,548 (44%).
THIS IS NOT 2010 AND THIS IS NOT A SENATE RACE
When he defeated Rep. Stan Lee to become attorney general, Conway did what myriad candidates have done before him – he made the tours of local courthouses, got his picture in the weekly papers and humbly asked for votes from one and all. He charmed his way across the state while Lee stayed in his comfort zone and spent little if any time in West Kentucky.
In the campaign for Senate, Conway waged an internet and air war. He visited West Kentucky but he had zero organization in the region. Paul went on national media (thanks to interest in the tea party and the novelty of his campaign), but his campaign focused on organization and local events. And it showed.
Conway is reportedly thinking of changing his campaign team for his re-election bid. At this writing, his opposition is West Kentucky attorney named Todd P’Pool (Madisonville in Hopkins County). Conway may be betting on another Stan Lee character to run against. He may not get it. P’Pool has put up $250,000 of his own money as an investment in his campaign. Evansville Courier Press Larry Cox, a Mitch McConnell longtime associate, has signed on to P’Pool’s campaign. It’s a sign that the Republicans smell blood in the AG’s water.
Conway will have a record to run on from his term. He’s worked hard on issues of drug use and internet and kiddie porn. Whether that will be enough to hold back what is beginning to look like a GOP surge remains to be seen.
Jack Conway is no dummy. He’s a political creature who can read the numbers as well as any other political operative. He has to know that incumbency is a major advantage in any political campaign. Over 94% of incumbents successfully retain their seats. He also has to know that the wave in Kentucky is flowing left to right, east to west.
Conway won in Jefferson County by almost 29,000 votes. But, he only won the other metro county - Fayette - by 1300 votes. He lost the big Northern Kentucky counties of Kenton, Campbell and Boone by double digits. He may be rethinking his urban strategy in light of the last election.
Conway and his advisers have to be looking at the numbers and wondering how much gas he will need in his tank to win another term as attorney general. Whatever his strategy, Conway will have to pull a lot more votes out of West Kentucky than he did in November 2010.