By Ronnie Ellis / CNNI News Service
It’s not a tea party challenge from the right, but a Republican primary for a state senate seat in the 16th District is ruffling some Republican feathers.
The newly drawn district extends from McCreary County along the Tennessee border to Cumberland County and then turns north to take in Russell, Adair and Taylor counties, all new to the district.
That prompted Campbellsville University political science professor Max Wise, 38, to jump in the race. That didn’t sit well with state Senate Republican Leadership. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, indicated they weren’t happy to have one of their colleagues challenged by a fellow Republican.
Wise had often considered running since his days as an FBI analyst before returning to Taylor County to teach at CU where his mother taught and coached women’s basketball for many years. That’s how Wise met his wife. He helped his mother recruit Glasgow High basketball star Heather Hood to Campbellsville.
Wise thought about running for the House seat eventually won by Carney several years ago, but one of his sons was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter.
“Our lives just completely shifted gears and politics went on the back burner so we could concentrate on his treatment,” Wise said. Carter, now 7, recovered, and so when Taylor County was added to the 16th Senate District, he decided now was the time.
Gregory graduated from the University of Kentucky with a political science degree and subsequently the UK law school. She clerked for federal Judge Eugene Siler before returning to her hometown of Monticello to practice law. She was elected to the House four years ago before winning the special Senate election in 2012.
The May 20 outcome might be decided along geographic lines. Gregory’s support is in the southern part of the district — Cumberland, Clinton, McCreary and her home of Wayne County. Wise lives in Taylor County, the northern most county in the new district, but he also has family connections in Wayne and Clinton counties. In between are Russell and Adair counties which combined have about one-third of the 53,723 registered Republicans in the district.
The two self-described conservatives don’t differ much on issues — they differ on Gregory’s record and Wise’s apparent assurance early in the campaign not to wage a negative campaign. Both say they are pro-life; oppose the Affordable Care Act; support the Second Amendment and oppose expanded gambling.
(Wise was quoted by the Adair County Progress in a January article as saying he personally opposes gambling but would support allowing voters to decide the issue.)
Wise has outraised Gregory by about $10,000 ($147,549 to $137,366) including a hefty amount from his wife’s hometown of Glasgow which isn’t in the 16th District. Heather Wise, a pediatric dentist, also helped her husband get contributions from several dentists and medical professionals.
“I think it’s a testament that a challenger out of nowhere outraised an incumbent going into the last 30 days of the race,” Wise said.
Gregory collected more money from PACs and traditional Republican donors and political figures such as state Senators, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, fundraiser Cathy Bailey and K.C. Crosbie who is running for lieutenant governor.
Wise is running an introductory, biographical television spot featuring his wife and four children in Adair, Clinton, Cumberland and Russell counties. But he’s also running a radio ad and sending out direct mail, nearly all of it attacking “career politician” Gregory.
She scoffs at the characterization: “I’ve been in the Senate two years and was in the House for two years before that. I don’t think that matches most people’s criteria for a career politician.”
Wise claims Gregory allowed health insurance premiums to rise by $43 million when she “went missing” on a key vote to allow medical review panels to settle malpractice claims rather than juries. Proponents contend the bill would slow increases in malpractice premiums, but the bill which easily passed the Republican Senate never had a chance in the Democratic House and premiums didn’t rise as a result.
Gregory said she skipped the vote because her law firm has handled some malpractice suits and, “I thought the best course of action was just to abstain from voting on the bill based on possible ethical conflicts.”
Wise also says Gregory didn’t do enough to stand up against Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. But Gregory voted against regulations to set up the health benefit exchange and in 2013 twice voted for Republican sponsored bills which would have required Beshear to get legislative approval to establish the health exchange. The bills failed in the House.
“I’ve cast more votes against the governor’s implementation of Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — than any other member.”
In response Wise said, “I just think the legislature was very lax and didn’t do enough.“
Wise also accuses Gregory of voting to increase property taxes and a “bailout of the construction industry.” Gregory said those bills, on which she voted while in the House, applied the sales tax to digital products and the other provided a loan guarantee program, not a bailout. Legislative staff calculated that neither bill had any impact on state revenues or spending and both were supported by House Republican leaders.
Gregory has responded to Wise’s advertising with radio, newspaper ads and direct mail. She emphasizes her sponsorship of a bill to require face-to-face consultations between doctor and patient before an abortion (the bill failed in the House); an A-plus rating by the National Rifle Association and her endorsement by Kentucky Right to Life. One mailer displays a text message she says she received from Wise when he first entered the race, promising to run a positive campaign.
She also touts the endorsement of former state Sen. Vernie McGaha who lives in Russell County.
Both said they’ve done polling but neither would share any specific poll results. Both expressed confidence they were ahead but wouldn’t say by how much.