Attorney General Jack Conway
Democrat Jack Conway has raised $1.15 million for his governor’s race.

The latest campaign fundraising totals in Kentucky’s still-too-early to analyze race for governor indicate one of the most expensive gubernatorial elections in state history could be on horizon.

Democrat Jack Conway reported late Monday he had raised nearly $400,000 over the past three months. That brings the state attorney general’s haul to an impressive $1.15 million without any primary challengers.

Republican candidate and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer flexed his own fundraising muscles in a report that eclipsed Conway by garnering $540,000 in the three weeks since entering the race.

“What is unique about our report is that it includes contributions from a diverse cross-section of Kentuckians,” Comer said in a news release Tuesday. “You can see farmers and factory workers, teachers and CEOs who understand that we want to make life better for all Kentuckians.”

Former Republican Louisville mayoral candidate Hal Heiner has kept his promise to do little fundraising this year. The latest quarterly report shows Heiner pulled in just $56,000, but as a wealthy businessman, he already has dropped $4.2 million into his own campaign.

Observers tell Insider Louisville these early figures show donors are locked in, and next year’s race could surpass previous totals, even with fewer candidates in the running.

During Kentucky’s last gubernatorial contest three years ago, state campaign finance records show the candidates spent $15.1 million in the general and primary elections.

James Comer
Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer has raised $540,000 in the three weeks since entering the race.

The 2007 gubernatorial contest remains the most expensive to date. In that race, which saw several contenders taking on embattled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, candidates doled out around $35.7 in campaign cash overall.

“This is clearly going to be the most expensive race in the history of Kentucky,” said Democratic strategist Mike Ward, who has endorsed Conway.

A key difference is the sophistication of outside groups, including super PACs, which are expected to be heavily involved in the 2015 race.

“The candidates are going to spend well more than $20 million between the primary and general,” said Ward. “Then you figure half as much from independent expenditures due to the two governors’ associations. So many people who want to make a play in those races will, and there will be places for them to write $100,000 checks.”

Independent expenditures have played a role in Kentucky governor races before.

Organizations such as the Democratic-leaning Bluegrass Freedom Fund — a so-called 527 group — ran merciless ads against Fletcher during his failed 2007 re-election.

In the relatively uncompetitive 2011 contest, Republican challenger David Williams received more financial backing from his then-father-in-law, Russell County businessman Terry Stephens, than his own campaign.

Stephens gave $4 million to outside groups slamming Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear when Williams raised just $2 million overall.

Republican strategist Scott Jennings tells Insider Louisville due to the state’s low contribution limits, donors seeking to make a larger impact will flow their money to outside groups.

Kentucky campaign finance law currently caps individual gifts to $1,000 a candidate per election.

“I’d imagine 2015 is going to attract massive attention from donors and outside groups, given how competitive it is going to be,” said Jennings, who runs a pair of outside groups backing Sen. Mitch McConnell’s re-election. “Spending next year could easily approach 2007, and possibly exceed it given that outside group spending is more prominent now.”

Republican consultant Tres Watson said big donors will keep pumping money into the state even during an off-year election.

“It will be larger in 2015 because it’s an open seat rolling into a presidential year, so both sides want to show they have momentum by winning in Kentucky,” he said. “There are only a few races, and we’re one of the competitive ones. National Republicans can say, ‘Hey, we picked up a seat firmly held by a Democrat,’ and use that to show the party is healthy.”

Besides Kentucky, only Louisiana and Mississippi hold their gubernatorial elections a year before the presidential race.

The amount raised and spent on political campaigns, however, does not always pay for many substantive debates.

Kentucky’s high-profile Senate contest is expected to crack the $100 million mark, but observers and voters have decried Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes for agreeing to just one debate.

Even those operatives who predict a fundraising record in the governor’s race worry this contest could give voters little to talk about.

“The explosion of money in politics has not served the voters of Kentucky or America well,” said Ward. “It is not about spending money, it’s about talking issues. That’s what the people want and need.”

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