Politicians look to make hay at Kentucky Derby
Louisville, Ky. – The masses crammed into Churchill Downs on Saturday were fixated on 3-year-old thoroughbreds running in the Kentucky Derby. But in some sections of the famed track, another type of horse race had politicians vying for attention – and perhaps cash to support their campaigns.
Springtime in Kentucky means trees blooming, horses racing and, in most years, politicians jockeying for position ahead of the late May primary election. This year, with the biggest political prize in Kentucky up for grabs, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is seeking a second term and three prominent Democrats are among those competing for a chance to unseat him. They covered much of the same ground while socializing at Churchill on Saturday.
For politicians flocking to the track, Derby Day presents opportunities and limitations.
It’s a chance to be seen as TV crews look for notables to interview.
There are seemingly countless hands to shake, but retail politicking can offer mixed results. With people from around the country converging on the Louisville track, a candidate is as likely to encounter a non-Kentuckian as they are someone who’s eligible to vote for them.
“They don’t have signs saying, ‘I vote in Nicholas County,’” said Doug Alexander, who was press secretary for Wallace Wilkinson when he was Kentucky’s governor.
Pressing through the crowds is exhausting and time consuming. But some candidates said it has value.
State Attorney General Andy Beshear, among the Democrats looking to unseat Bevin, said he walked 8 miles (13 kilometers) at last year’s Derby while making the rounds at the sprawling track.
“It never hurts to have tens of thousands of Kentuckians all under one roof,” he said.
Kentucky House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, another leading Democrat in the governor’s race, said it’s a chance to make brief connections that might make lasting impressions with voters from across the state. He also saw it as a chance to gauge how he’s faring with voters as he waded through the crowds.
“You kind of get a sense of the amount of on-the-ground support you’ve got,” he said.
The more gentrified sections of Churchill are where politicians tend to gravitate.
There, politicians have a chance to hang out with the well-heeled – people who can make generous donations to campaigns and introduce them to others so inclined. It’s also a chance promote the state to business prospects that could bring jobs and tax revenue.
The wealthy and well-connected take in the Derby Day splendors from the comfort of spacious areas offering panoramic views of the horse race and all the pageantry surrounding it.
“The best places to campaign are the upper floors at Churchill Downs,” longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said.
It helps that it’s a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of food, drink, and socializing.
“One great thing about visiting the track, just about everyone you meet is in a good mood and in a good headspace about parting with their money,” GOP strategist Scott Jennings said.
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle agreed that it’s premium territory for glad-handing but thought the odds are against a big payoff.
“There’s a lot of people there who are interested in politics,” he said. “And it never hurts to do politicking and shake their hands and meet some new people. But I’m not sure how memorable any of it is.”
Candidates might be better off campaigning elsewhere in Kentucky, he suggested.
The connections made at Derby can provide political dividends, but Cross said he doubts that Derby Day “makes the cash register ring that much.”
“By the time Derby has arrived, most of the fundraising is over” for the primaries, he said. “People have picked their horses, so to speak, and it’s more a matter of donor maintenance.”
It’s also a chance for politicians to shuck some of the formalities of running for office.
“It’s an opportunity to be seen through a different sort of lens – not being just a serious politician, just a person who’s trying to have some fun on Derby Day,” Cross said.
For the governor, the power of incumbency comes into play. He’s able to bask in the national TV spotlight when presenting the trophy to the Derby winner’s ownership connections. It’s also a chance to make a pitch for the Bluegrass State.
During last year’s trophy presentation, Bevin boasted that Kentucky produces the best racehorses, bourbon, and manufactured products.
Governors have long used Derby festivities as a business recruitment tool. Guest lists can include CEOs and other top business executives.
“It’s what I call Kentucky’s day in the sun,” said former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton. “And I think it’s appropriate to take every advantage of that.”
Derby season also shows that Kentuckians know how to throw a party.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ve been at parties in Hollywood and I’ve been at parties in New York, but I’ve never been to a party like this,’” Patton said.