The Race Before The Race for Governor: The Privilege Of Affording
 Campaign Debts

Gov. Matt Bevin spent over $4 million of his own money to win his seat — money, it seems, he’s only recently started to miss.

Last year, Bevin began paying himself back for his campaign loans: One $100,000 chunk from funds he raised in 2018, according to documents filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance in December.

The governor still owes himself for his failed U.S. Senate campaign in 2014, which he spent $1.25 million on, but recouped only $10,352.

And now, if Bevin runs for governor again, it is possible that millions more of his own money would go toward a campaign. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bevin’s campaign debts could be seen as a negative, but they highlight his privilege: the high cost that it takes to mount a run for office that many cannot afford.

State Rep. Attica Scott, a progressive Democrat from Louisville, announced Jan. 5 that she would not seek the governor’s office, partly because she could not lose the work at her job as a community health coach.

“It was really reckoning that there was no way that I could have the luxury or the privilege of taking time away from work after already taking time away for the legislative session on leave without pay,” said Scott, who is a single mother.

Scott sees a tradition of privileged candidates running for office farther back than just a few years.

Try the last 50.

“We’re not asking about a system that is designed for young people who are still building a certain amount of wealth to be able to run,” she said. “It’s definitely not designed for women who are single heads of household, and [it’s] often not designed for people of color who have barriers up to them, to building a certain amount of wealth.”

And now that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has announced she will not run for governor, the rest of the field is white men.

Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the UK, said that it’s important for candidates to have money at the beginning of their campaigns when they need seed funds to build a strong campaign organization and to attract more money from outside sources.

“Where money really sort of short-circuits the political process is not having it,” said Voss — as opposed to how much a candidate is able to raise after that point.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem for many of the candidates who have filed to run for governor. Most of them are businessman or professionals, including Democratic candidates Rocky Adkins and Adam Edelen, as well as Republicans William Woods and Robert Goforth, who owns a stake in three Kentucky pharmacies, according to records he filed with the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission last year.

The other candidates for office are Democrat Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s current attorney general and son of former Gov. Steve Beshear and Geoff Young, a perennial candidate. Grimes cited her recent motherhood as the reason for not running.

Wealthy candidates have become increasingly attractive to parties that aren’t doing well in their areas, Voss said.

“Back when more places in the United States were competitive, then candidates from both sides could find the money through normal contributions and regular forms of backing,” said Voss. “But as there have been fewer swing areas, as more and more challenges are long shots, that’s where the political system has gotten money for those upstart campaigns. The parties often recruit wealthy people.”

Bevin has until Jan. 29 to file for office. Despite his deep pockets, he may be waiting to continue to raise more money for his last campaigns (both the primary and the general), which he could use to pay off his debts.

It’s unusual, although not illegal, for a candidate to keep his former campaign accounts open for as long as Bevin has, according to John Steffen, the executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Once Bevin files, if he has a different running mate, he must open a new campaign with the registry. Bevin couldn’t transfer his debts to the new one, but he could continue to fundraise for the previous ones. He’d just be asking for money for three campaigns instead of one.

Voss sees other reasons that Bevin may not have filed yet: Maybe he hasn’t selected a running mate yet or, he is waiting to be called to Washington, D.C.

“These,” Voss said, “are just rumors.”