- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - After announcing his candidacy for governor in May, Attorney General Jack Conway had back surgery in December and announced he would have a limited schedule for the rest of the year.

He can afford to take it easy.

The two-term Attorney General is the only major candidate in the running for the Democratic nomination for governor with about a month to go before the filing deadline. Geoff Young, a little-known former state employee from Lexington, has also filed.

“I would say it’s unprecedented,” said former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, who survived a five-way primary in 1995 on his way to becoming the state’s first two-term governor. “It’s not bad, but I don’t know that you’d call it good.”

Since 1975, Kentucky’s Democratic primaries for governor have had as many as nine candidates in 1979 and as few as four candidates in 1991. Only twice during that span did a Democrat win the nomination with more than 50 percent of the vote. In 1979, John Y. Brown won the nine-way primary with less than 30 percent of the vote.

Of course, Democrats defeated Republicans in all but one of those elections, and currently hold five of six statewide elected offices. But the GOP has gained ground in recent years, and many Democrats credit the grueling primary process for perfecting their party’s candidates. That’s why some Democrats are still searching for someone to challenge Conway for the nomination as Republicans, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, are gearing up for what looks to be a contentious primary of their own.

“I’m quite discouraged because I really have not been hearing from anybody,” said Christy Brown, a major Democratic donor and widow of the late Brown-Forman chairman and CEO Owsley Brown II. “If we were to have more candidates, we would have a much healthier conversation in the primary for sure. And we need to have healthy, honest conversations about our horrific realities.”

Former Auditor Crit Luallen, appointed to replace Jerry Abramson as lieutenant governor last month, has said she will not run in 2015. Neither will Auditor Adam Edelen, although many Democrats have been asking him to reconsider.

Last month, at the Kentucky Association of Counties’ annual convention, Democratic insiders began pushing for House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins to run for governor. The 27-year legislative veteran from eastern Kentucky is a cancer survivor who played point guard for the Morehead State University basketball team that made it to the NCAA tournament in 1983.

“The Democratic Party has always had spirited primary elections, I think that has made us a strong party and a better party. That may be where some of this encouragement is coming from,” Adkins said, adding that Conway is a strong candidate. “I have told them that I would keep the door open.”

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo is leaving the door open, too, saying he would think about running for governor after the election for Speaker of the House on Jan. 6.

“I would be surprised if there is not a primary,” Stumbo said.

But Conway has done everything he can to shut the door to potential Democratic opponents. He has raised close to $1 million since he announced his candidacy in May. And Luallen, once considered a potential challenger, has endorsed him along with legendary former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the state’s only Democratic congressman.

“The only people who can get into the race now will be people who can finance a major portion of the race,” Patton said. “So I think Jack’s in an extremely strong position, even assuming somebody got in under those circumstances.”

This week, Conway was invited to the Democratic Governor’s Association’s annual meeting, a sign his staff says shows the national party is rallying around Conway. Mark Riddle, Conway’s senior adviser, attended the meeting on Conway’s behalf as he continues to recover from back surgery.

And Riddle said Democrats should not worry that an uncontested primary would not prepare Conway for the general election. Conway has lots of political experience, losing to former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup in 2003 and losing the high profile 2010 U.S. Senate race to Republican Rand Paul. In between, he was elected the state’s Attorney General twice.

“Jack is battle tested,” Riddle said. “Other than (2014 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate) Alison Grimes, Jack has had more ads spent in his favor and on opposing him than any politician in the history of Kentucky.”

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