Primary postmortem: Who really won?
The Tuesday, May 17, primary dealt the cards for the Nov. 8 general election. Who holds the good hands in Kentucky? Not Hillary Clinton. With a huge effort, she avoided embarrassment, but her 0.43-percentage-point win over Bernie Sanders was less a victory than an avoidance of setback. The most frequent and unflattering comparison was with her 35.56-point margin over Barack Obama in 2008, but she had much more going for her then: an electorate her husband carried twice, an opponent who didn't really contest the state, and one whose race disqualified him among 15 percent of voters, judging from that year's exit poll. But the bloom is clearly off the rose. In the only public poll of this year's likely Democratic primary voters, taken in March, 46 percent said they had a lower opinion of Clinton than in 2008, and 37 percent said they would vote for Republican Donald Trump in the fall. The investigation of Clinton's private-server emails and the fallout from the Benghazi consulate attack have taken a toll, but there's more. This isn't a good year for candidates who seem like more of the same old stuff. The Clintons have been around a long time, and she has no distinctive message. The Clintons have lost much of the so-called "working class" - blue-collar employees or those with no college education - due to the decline in manufacturing jobs, exacerbated by trade deals Trump decries. On a sentimental final day of politicking in Paducah, which in 1992 was the last stop of her husband's campaign, Clinton said she didn't want to write off Kentucky, but that now seems almost certain. The state has trended Republican, and national Democrats just don't sell here. That being said, the Clintons displayed a work ethic and an attitude that could serve her well in other states. Bill Clinton probably didn't win many votes by facing unhappy coal miners in Prestonsburg, but you have to give him and the campaign credit for going there. And his wife has a plan for helping miners; all Trump has is bluster. Coal will be an issue as Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul seeks a second term against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who got 58.7 percent of the vote against six foes who ran limited campaigns. Eastern Kentucky has been devastated by job losses in coal, and Paul has a rescue idea: making it and other such areas "economic freedom zones" with lower federal taxes, wage requirements and regulatory burdens. Offered as an amendment to an energy bill last month, the Senate defeated the plan 33-64. Then Paul was one of only 12 senators to vote against the main bill, backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other coal-state senators. Gray noted that vote in a post-primary press release, as well as Paul's earlier opposition to a Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers' bill to use mine reclamation funds for coalfield jobs. More broadly, the release called Paul's voting record "bizarre." Asked to reply, Paul spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said in an email, "This is a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that the destructive Clinton-Obama agenda of the War on Coal and Kentucky jobs has already been widely rejected by Kentuckians." Translation: Pay no attention to the senator's votes, but to the presidential campaign narrative - and the mistaken belief that Obama's policies are primarily responsible for lost coal jobs. Gray seems to realize there's no use trying to persuade voters otherwise, but he can use other issues, such as Paul's opposition to a minimum-wage increase, his skepticism of any wage minimum, his continued interest in running for president, and his stands that put privacy ahead of national security. Those are surely issues tested in an internal poll that probably showed Gray he had a chance to win. I doubt he would have run without that information, but such polling is usually based on pro-and-con questions that create an artificial construct: a well-informed electorate. Getting voters to look beyond the "Clinton-Obama" name-calling and focus on issues will be an uphill battle. The Republican primary was tantamount to election in the First Congressional District, where former Agriculture Commissioner James Comer easily dispatched three opponents, led by Mike Pape, former field aide to retiring Rep. Ed Whitfield. After his 83-vote loss to Matt Bevin in last year's primary for governor, which turned nasty at the end, Comer said he would take a break from politics, but who passes up an open House seat? Comer, who will turn 44 on Aug. 19, has plenty of time to run for governor again, or perhaps senator. The only thing close to a contested congressional race this fall will be in the Sixth District, where two-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr is opposed by the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, former executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches. She may have more friends, but Barr will have a lot more money, and it looks like a Republican year. The primary gave few clues about Republicans' prospects to take over the state House, but it did oust two longtime Louisville representatives in three-way races: moderate Republican Ron Crimm and nominal Democrat Tom Riner. Crimm lost to rising GOP star Jason Nemes, who is already familiar with the halls, offices and passageways of Frankfort. Keep an eye on him. Riner fell to Attica Scott, who also has much potential. She will be the first African American woman in the House since 2000. Scott, who lost a Metro Council race in 2014, had some key Democratic endorsements. A minister and strong social conservative, Riner no longer fits his diverse district. That being said, those of us who worry about legislative ethics and campaign finance will miss Riner's occasional screeds and admonitions to his colleagues about the responsibilities to serve the broad public interest, not lobbying interests. If there is one good thing about Trump, it is his attacks on such interests. We can't be sure if he really means it. We know Tom Riner did. Al Cross, a former CJ political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK's nor The Woodford Sun's. This column first appeared in the May 20 issue of the Louisville Courier Journal.