- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Democrats topping their party’s ticket in Kentucky’s off-year election are skipping a visit by President Barack Obama, whose unpopularity tripped up Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s challenger last year and looms as a recurring GOP theme as voters pick a new governor.

Jack Conway, the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee, will be in eastern Kentucky when Obama talks about the economy Thursday at a Louisville tech company. Conway’s focus will be combating drug abuse, a key issue during his tenure as state attorney general. A campaign spokesman said Conway was not invited to appear with Obama.

Conway sounded unconcerned by any political fallout from Obama’s visit to his hometown, even as Republicans stepped up efforts to link the two Democrats. Obama was trounced in Kentucky both times he won the presidency.

“If I see the president again, I look forward to visiting with him and sharing my concerns with what’s going on in Kentucky,” Conway said Wednesday at the state Capitol in Frankfort.

Last year, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to say during her failed challenge of McConnell whether she voted for Obama. McConnell, now the Senate majority leader, was facing his own lackluster approval ratings at the time and turned his re-election into a referendum on the president, blaming stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations for wiping out thousands of coal jobs in eastern Kentucky.

A spokeswoman for Grimes, who is running for re-election as secretary of state, said she has other commitments Thursday but that her office was trying to rearrange her schedule.

Obama’s speech comes as Kentucky’s overall unemployment rate has plunged. Kentucky’s preliminary jobless rate in February was 5.2 percent, the state’s lowest rate since November 2004. When Obama took office in January 2009, Kentucky’s unemployment rate was 9.1 percent.

Conway tried to defuse any “Obama issue” early in his quest to become governor. Conway announced he voted for Obama “and then I sued him” - referring to a lawsuit challenging EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The Republican Governors Association said Conway warmly greeted Obama on the president’s 2012 arrival at a northern Kentucky airport for a visit to Cincinnati. The GOP group said Conway tweeted it was an honor to welcome Obama and they talked baseball, politics and policy and shared some laughs.

Obama “was a weight around the neck of Grimes, and I can assure you he’s not going to help Jack Conway one bit this November,” said state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, among the GOP candidates for governor.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who is running for a second term, said he will attend a fundraiser Thursday in eastern Kentucky. Edelen said the event was planned well in advance, and said he’s glad Obama will “shine a national spotlight” on Louisville. Andy Beshear, the lone Democrat running for attorney general, will meet with law enforcement in northern Kentucky that day to talk about heroin abuse, his campaign said.

One prominent Democrat not shying away from Obama’s visit is Beshear’s father, Gov. Steve Beshear. The popular governor, in the last year of his second term, has been praised by Obama for his embrace of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature law. More than a half million Kentuckians have signed up for health insurance through the state-operated exchange, with most of them enrolling for Medicaid.

“I certainly am going to be welcoming the president to the commonwealth and spending as much time with him as I can,” he said.

Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, denounces what he sees as Obama’s regulatory overreach, but said the president isn’t his main focus.

“He’s not running for governor, nor is he going to be running for president again,” Bevin said. “I think the people of Kentucky … are looking forward to the day when he’s not a topic of political conversation in any race.”

___

Beam reported from Frankfort, Kentucky.

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