Issue January 26, 2006

Next year, will we call him Governor Conway?

Next year, will we call him Governor Conway?

Last year, national Democrats pushed hard to convince former congressional candidate Jack Conway to consider a rematch of his razor-thin loss to Republican Rep. Anne Northup in 2002. Even President Clinton called Conway to voice encouragement.

Ultimately, however, Conway demurred and disappointed Democrats. Naturally, some wondered if the 36-year-old budding superstar of the Kentucky Democratic Party was too worried about the negative impact of a second straight loss.

But the biggest reason Conway decided against running is becoming clearer. He is being urged — and is quietly considering — a run for governor in 2007.

While conventional wisdom suggests Conway should opt for a smaller race next time — not the whole enchilada — Conway is no conventional candidate. And a close assessment of next year’s gubernatorial race shows that things may shape up surprisingly to his advantage.

First, consider the Democratic field.

Should U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler seek a rematch of his 2003 loss to Gov. Ernie Fletcher, it’s pretty obvious he would clear the Democratic field. Many Republicans concede privately that he would be nearly impossible to defeat in a general election. But Chandler is happy with his current congressional gig and is unlikely to run.

That would lead to a Democratic free-for-all, with more than a half-dozen names mentioned as possible Democratic candidates.

One is State Auditor Crit Luallen, the only woman among likely contenders and a probable front-runner. Beyond the support she’d gain from women, Luallen’s experience in state government and her strong base in Louisville and Lexington would make her tough to beat in a primary. But Luallen, who has successfully overcome some health-related issues, has remained guarded about her intentions and many believe she will not run.

That would set the stage for Conway.

Since nearly all of the other rumored Democratic wannabes have either legal or ethical clouds in their past (Steve Henry, Greg Stumbo, Bruce Lunsford) or will be well past retirement age on Election Day (Julian Carroll will be 76, Jody Richards, 69 and Charlie Owen, 68), the squeaky clean and handsome young lawyer would certainly stand out alone.

On the campaign trail, Conway has proven a tenacious candidate, narrowly losing in 2002 at a time Gov. Patton had just admitted to his affair and while Northup was campaigning regularly with President Bush, whose approval ratings hovered in the 80s in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Just as critical to a campaign are Conway’s prodigious fund-raising skills: He collected $1.6 million for his own congressional race and later raised $1 million for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Conway would also come to the race with considerable political support, not just from lawyers but, as a horseman, from the thoroughbred world as well, and he would surely have the backing of powerful political allies, including Chandler, Luallen and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.

While progressive urban voters would flock to his campaign, Conway is no bleeding heart liberal. His strong Catholic faith and his support of gun-rights and faith-based initiatives would resonate in rural counties. And should he consider someone like Northern Kentucky’s rising political star Kathy Groob as his running mate, it would demonstrate an unmistakable commitment to Kentucky’s women and remind Northern Kentucky voters that a Conway administration would be no fair-weather friend — unlike the current crew — thereby creating inroads among both groups.

But Conway’s greatest appeal might be to voters furious with the good ol’ boy system that continues to dominate Frankfort, regardless of the party in charge, and excite those looking ahead to the brighter days Kentucky’s future might finally bring.

His emergence as the Democratic nominee would provide a stark contrast to the disaster of the Fletcher-Pence administration. A sharp and savvy lawyer, he’d give opponents fits in debates, and that would shape public perception.

Fletcher would have a Herculean task trying to spin his platitudes and half-truths when challenged by a candidate who will have the money necessary to communicate his positions to a public that no longer trusts the propaganda coming out of Frankfort after a four-year record of broken promises.

After two straight administrations of corruption and cronyism, the perfect storm is gathering for Kentucky to finally embrace its future, and I won’t be surprised if, in December 2007, the oath of office is given to then 38-year-old Gov. Jack Conway with the hope that Kentucky might truly embrace its unbridled spirit.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org.
Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org.