Discord Dominates Final Gubernatorial Debate
Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin clashed early and often in their final debate during KET’s Kentucky Tonight Monday.
Competing flanks of supporters briefly gathered at the entrance to the KET studios, waving campaign signs and trading chants... harbingers of the often sharp exchanges that characterized the next hour.
And while crosstalk ate into much of the running time, the candidates settled into familiar grooves on pension reform, Medicaid, and the EPA. Bevin repeatedly took swipes at Conway for what he described as lies about his taxes and positions on a host of issues, while Conway laughed off much of the criticism – including the Republican’s accusation that the Democratic Attorney General has been “shaking down” companies.
"The reality is there are any number of things, whether it's the pharmaceutical companies, the tobacco companies, what have you. So often we're quick to join and shake money out of other people," Bevin charged. "We always love more of other people's money, but at the end of the day we need an environment in this state that is business-friendly, where companies feel that we want to be in the state of Kentucky because it's a good place to do business."
Responding, Conway defended his role in restoring and adding to the state’s hefty tobacco settlement funds in 2014.
"About a hundred million dollars a year comes into the state of Kentucky from these tobacco payments that he just denounced, ok? And half of that money goes to agricultural diversification, to helping our farmers throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky diversify, find new products. The Farm Bureau relies on that money," he said.
Independent candidate Drew Curtis was not invited to participate, but spent the evening firing off tweets, including one declaring himself the winner since “neither of the other guys can.”
Monday night’s face-off ended with an open invitation for the opponents to compliment one another, but the moment appears unlikely to have dampened the hostility that has grown up around the campaigns.
In his closing statement, Conway proffered a final olive branch to the opponent he’s spent millions painting as an untrustworthy “East Coast con man” – applauding his commitment to his children, four of whom were adopted from Ethiopia.
"Matt, when I do look at you and your family, you have without a doubt provided some children that wouldn't otherwise have a wonderful home with a wonderful home and that's something to be respected," the Democrat offered. "And if that's the last thing I say to you in debating I want you to know I think that's something to be admired and be respected."
Later prompted to return the favor, the Republican nominee worked a statement about his hoped-for outcome for the race into his reply.
"I would say this about Jack Conway, I look forward to you having the opportunity to join the private sector and have the opportunity for the first time in your life to appreciate all that you have done as a public servant for the people here," Bevin said.
The debate marks the final scheduled joint televised appearance for the contenders and so far, polling indicates the forums have done little to budge the numbers. The most recent survey, conducted by the Western Kentucky University Social Science Research Center, showed Conway leading Bevin 45 to 40 percent with independent Drew Curtis pulling 7 percent.
While the gubernatorial hopefuls have concentrated most of their fire on each other, the candidates’ relationship with the press could become an issue in the waning days of the 2015 governor’s race.
Following the live program, members of the Fourth Estate found themselves with lopsided reaction from the two frontrunners. As reporters swamped Jack Conway, the first candidate to emerge from the studio, Bevin left without taking questions. And Conway used the opportunity to worry aloud about whether his opponent has thick enough skin for the job.
"I think what he's shown over the last couple nights is he doesn't have the temperament to be the governor of Kentucky," he said. "And, you know, he's not going to be able to storm out of a Republican caucus meeting in the senate when he's talking about what they're going to have to get through."
Throughout the campaign, Bevin has at times declined to respond to select reporters. Sunday night, the scene repeated itself following a debate at Eastern Kentucky University.
"I think I've made this clear that I'm not taking questions from certain people... because I'll tell you what, at this point there are any number of questions that you all have. If you have questions to ask I'll be happy to answer them," he said to a pack of dissatisfied journalists.
"There are certain people who have certain reasons. We've had conversations..." the Republican added.
In the past, Bevin has suggested some in the press have mischaracterized his views and allowed their focus to drift from the important issues facing the Commonwealth.