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Al Cross: AG’s race shapes up as most interesting; Republican side rests on McConnell’s involvement

The filing deadline has passed, so let’s make up the scorecard for this year’s statewide elections, starting with the party labels and the top job on the ballots.

Republicans are at real risk of losing the governorship, mainly due to Gov. Matt Bevin’s self-inflicted wounds.

Al Cross

But the Kentucky Democratic Party, after decades of decline, risks being shut out of statewide office. Its best hope may be former Miss America Heather French Henry’s bid for secretary of state.

Meanwhile, state Republicans’ real leader, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, keeps playing his long game, setting up a former aide to be attorney general and climb politics’ greasy pole. But they have an unusual intraparty fight on their hands.

The Democrats’ two statewide officeholders are Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor, and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is term-limited not running for another office – perhaps in part because her meddling at the State Board of Elections is the focus of a major journalistic investigation.

Beshear is the early favorite in the May 21 Democratic primary, but the keyword is early. Former state auditor Adam Edelen is the most compelling communicator, and state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins has the best chance of bringing back to the party Democrats who voted for Bevin over then-AG Jack Conway in 2015 – especially because Beshear and Edelen will split the party’s urban base.

Daniel Cameron

“The Democrats need someone who can run outside Jefferson and Fayette” counties, said longtime political observer and operative Danny Briscoe of Louisville, who says he hasn’t committed to a candidate. Questions remain about Adkins, Briscoe said: “Can he hire some really smart people? Can he raise money? On paper, he has the best chance” to be elected.

A year ago, one argument for Beshear to run for governor rather than a second term was that he might lose the AG’s race to state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, whom he beat by only 0.2 percent in 2015. But on Jan. 22, McConnell protégé Daniel Cameron of Louisville filed against Westerfield – who dropped out three days later, saying he didn’t have the time for both the legislature and “a strong campaign.”

But McConnell & Co. couldn’t clear the field. State Sen. Wil Schroder of Wilder in Campbell County filed, and Westerfield is supporting him for the nomination against ex-AG Greg Stumbo, who is unopposed for the Democratic nod after announcing in late December.

Republicans said Westerfield’s meager funding – $54,000 raised, and a balance that fell $20,000 in the last quarter – invited a challenge. He said he got the message when someone forwarded him an invitation to a Cameron fund-raiser co-hosted by McConnell’s state director, Terry Carmack: “That’s not usually something you see.”

Carmack explained himself: “Daniel is one of the best and brightest people to ever serve on Senator McConnell’s staff. . . . I realized what an incredible person and leader he is.”

Westerfield also saw McConnell’s handiwork in the first words Cameron uttered when he asked him if he was running: “I’ve been encouraged to run for attorney general,” rather than saying he had wanted to do it for some time.

“That’s a big signal.”

Wil Schroder

Cameron wouldn’t say whether McConnell or Carmack encouraged him, but didn’t deny it and left little doubt: “I shared my interest in the job a little bit, and decided to put my name in the hat when I decided Whitney hadn’t raised enough money, and that sort of thing.”

As legal counsel to McConnell in 2015-17, Cameron worked with Kentucky law-enforcement agencies. As an African American, he offers Republicans a needed dose of diversity, something McConnell is known to favor. “We’ve had a long friendship,” he said.

But Cameron is only 33, and won’t have been “a practicing lawyer eight years before his election,” the sole constitutional requirement, until a few weeks before the Nov. 5 general election, a point Westerfield noted.
Schroder, 36, said he wasn’t sure if he would make that an issue: “I’m sure we’re going to explore that a little bit.”

Schroder is a former prosecutor, experience he said voters like in an attorney general. He said Republican voters needed an option and should want a nominee with campaign experience and name recognition to take on Stumbo.

Schroder’s late father, who had the same name, was an elected Court of Appeals and Supreme Court judge from Northern Kentucky for 21 years.

So, how does the race shape up? Westerfield said, “It depends on how much the majority leader weighs in.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

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