LEXINGTON, Kentucky —
Surging absentee ballots indicated a renewed interest in Kentucky's race for governor on Monday as candidates traveled the state in an effort to energize voters one day before a pivotal off-year election ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes reported 27,969 people had voted absentee as of Monday, more than all the absentee ballots cast in the previous election for governor. The state's chief election official now said it appears turnout is likely to equal or surpass that in 2011, when 28 percent of registered voters cast ballots in an election that saw Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear re-elected to a second term.
Still, candidates battled a perceived lack of enthusiasm across the state. Kentucky is one of just three states that will elect a governor on Tuesday.
"I really don't think people are as excited," said Kathryn Stocks, who heard Republican Matt Bevin rally supporters in Lexington. "More people are focused on the fact that we've got a national election going on even though it is a year away."
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for six statewide offices: governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor of public accounts, commissioner of agriculture and treasurer. Voters in a few areas have local special elections, including a race to fill a vacant state Supreme Court seat in eastern Kentucky.
The governor's race has received the bulk of the money and the attention as three men seek to replace Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Bevin, the Republican, began the day in Louisville with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate who crushed Bevin in the Republican Senate primary last year. It was McConnell's legendary campaign operation that has given Democrats much of the ammunition they needed to run against Bevin this fall, including details about Bevin's late tax payments that have played a prominent role in Democrat Jack Conway's TV ads in the final weeks of the campaign.
But the two former rivals put their arms around each other Monday as Bevin tried to shift the focus to social and religious issues instead of questions about health care and education policy that dominated the two most recent televised debates.
"Vote your values and not your party," Bevin said in a state where registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. "If you respect human life, we're the only ticket to vote for. If you respect Second Amendment rights, we're the only ticket to vote for. ... These things matter to Kentucky. These are Kentucky values."
McConnell labeled Bevin the "candidate of change." And he held up a newspaper from a few weeks before his U.S. Senate election last year that declared the race a "dead heat."
"As you know, a few days later we won by 15 points," McConnell said. "If you want to change Kentucky and make it competitive with the rest of the country, we need Matt Bevin to be governor."
Conway, Kentucky's attorney general, appeared loose and upbeat during a campaign stop in Lexington, sipping coffee as he shook hands and spoke to a few dozen supporters eating breakfast. He focused on his plans to expand public preschool programs and to protect the state's expanded Medicaid program, which has given health insurance to more than 400,000 people. Bevin has criticized both as too expensive.
"I hope (voters) focus on temperament. I think how we've comported ourselves the last few weeks in particular is important," Conway said, criticizing Bevin's performance in recent debates. "It's a signal as to who has the calm discretion and can manage through a crisis better if they were to be governor."
Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, Conway's political mentor, who chose not to challenge him for the nomination, called Kentucky's Democratic ticket a "new generation of leadership for Kentucky."
"We have this state moving in the right direction and the only way to keep that momentum moving is to elect this ticket top to bottom," she said.
Independent candidate Drew Curtis spent the day active on social media, posting images of his campaign logo for supporters to download. He acknowledged in an article he wrote for Wired magazine that his chances of winning were "slim," saying it is "kind of a tragedy because everyone says they want a candidate like me, who doesn't bow to ideology."
(The version corrects voter's name to Kathryn Stocks, note Stokes.)