By Andy Mead – firstname.lastname@example.org
Vice Mayor Jim Gray appears to have a slim advantage over incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in the race for Lexington’s top job, a new Kentucky Poll shows.
It is the first time an independent poll has shown the challenger out front in the non-partisan contest, although Gray’s four-point lead is within the poll’s margin of error.
Among likely voters, Gray leads Newberry 44 percent to 40 percent, with 16 percent undecided. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Gray trailed Newberry in the May primary, getting 37.5 percent of the vote to Newberry’s 43.7 percent. Former Mayor Teresa Isaac, who received 16.6 percent in the primary and didn’t move forward to the general election, endorsed Gray two days before the poll began.
The live telephone survey of 500 likely Fayette County voters was conducted from Oct. 15 through Oct. 19 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington D.C. It was commissioned by the Lexington Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV.
Don Dugi, a Transylvania University political scientist who follows the race, said Gray’s lead was “not particularly convincing” because of the relatively large number of people who are undecided about how they’ll vote on Nov. 2.
“The tendency for people who are undecided before an election is generally to fall into the camp of the incumbent,” he said.
Gray is a 57-year-old businessman serving his first term in the part-time vice mayor’s job. Newberry, 54, is an attorney in his first term in the full-time mayor’s job.
Gray has hit hard on the theme that Newberry has presided over a series of scandals, including spending at Blue Grass Airport and the Lexington Public Library. He also has tried to tie Newberry to a 37 percent increase in water bills.
Newberry’s response has been that things are going well in Lexington, and that Gray has been a do-nothing vice mayor with no legislative record to show voters. Newberry supported a new $164 million treatment plant that is driving the water rate increase, but says Kentucky American is asking customers to pay too much for it.
Dugi said he thinks the water rate issue played a role in Gray’s showing in the poll. It especially helped Gray that the water company implemented the rate increase last month without waiting for approval by the Kentucky Public Service Commission, he said.
“People tend to vote their pocketbook or their perception of their pocketbook,” Dugi said. “A 37 percent rate hike for a water company is pretty dramatic and (Gray) has managed to paint Newberry with some of that. How much it will continue to stick, I don’t know.”
Gray polled higher than Newberry among Democrats, Republicans and independents. He held four-point leads among Democrats and Republicans, but led among independents by 11 points.
Still, one-third of independents remained undecided, as did 20 percent of Republicans. Only 10 percent of Democrats remained undecided on the candidates, who are both registered Democrats.
Gray has produced a flurry of short, negative ads in recent weeks, and the poll suggests he might be striking a chord with voters.
When asked their opinions of the candidates, Gray drew a negative response from 19 percent of respondents, compared to 31 percent for Newberry. Forty-six percent said they felt favorable toward Gray, compared to 44 percent for Newberry.
More than a third described their opinion of Gray as neutral. With Newberry, a quarter said they had a neutral opinion.
Besides trading barbs in television ads and at forums, the campaigns have been rolling out endorsements in recent weeks.
In addition to the Isaac endorsement, Gray has been endorsed by all four unions that represent city employees.
On Wednesday, Newberry announced endorsements from local chapters of unions representing carpenters and millwrights. On Thursday, he announced support from 75 former Lexington athletes, including former University of Kentucky football quarterback Tim Couch, and UK basketball players Jack Givens and Kenny Walker.
At a news conference, former UK quarterback Talbot Todd compared Newberry to a good quarterback in the thick of the action. He dismissed Gray as a Monday-morning quarterback.
Since the primary, polls by cn|2 Politics showed Newberry with a 13-point lead in August and a 6-point lead earlier this month. The latter poll showed Newberry with 43 percent and Gray with 37 percent, with 19 percent still undecided.
In the new Kentucky Poll, fewer than half of those polled — 47 percent — said they approved of the job Newberry is doing as mayor. Thirty-four percent disapproved, and 19 percent weren’t sure.
Gray’s job approval rating as vice mayor was 48 percent, about the same as Newberry’s. But his disapproval rating was lower at 24 percent. And more people, 28 percent, said they weren’t sure.
What do the candidates need to do in the dwindling number of days before the election?
“Newberry has to continue to make the claims he’s been making: That there’s been progress and jobs, and to suggest as he has that Gray’s not always in attendance when he should be,” Dugi said.
As for Gray, Dugi said, “If he can continue to get some stick ‘em out of the water business, he has to continue to make people feel bad about the mayor.”