FRANKFORT - Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway announced his candidacy for governor on Tuesday, vowing to continue Kentucky's version of the Affordable Care Act, lauded as a national model by some and decried by others as an overreach of executive powers.
Current Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear oversaw the expansion of Kentucky's Medicaid program and its subsidized private health insurance market. But he has done it all with federal money, and without asking the state legislature.
Prominent Kentucky Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and state Senate President Robert Stivers, have advocated eliminating Kynect - Kentucky's version of the federal health care overhaul - saying it places too much of a burden on the private sector and costs Kentucky jobs. The two-year state spending plan that begins July 1 includes a ban on using state money to pay for Kynect.
Conway, who has often walked the fine party line of Kentucky Democrats, said it would be priority to make sure the more than 413,000 people who have signed up for health insurance through Kynect can keep it.
"I think Republicans have to answer why they want to advocate policies that take health care away from 415,000 people," Conway said in an interview. "The people of Kentucky have distinguished between the inability of Washington to get it right and what Kentucky did."
Republicans immediately tried to link Conway to President Barack Obama, just as they did during Conway's losing 2010 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Obama has never been popular in Kentucky, losing the state badly in his successful runs for the White House.
"It should concern all Kentucky voters that a true liberal like Jack Conway, who has publicly embraced President Barack Obama and the views of his administration, wants to lead our Commonwealth," state GOP Chairman Steve Robertson said.
As Beshear prepares to leave office in 2015, the next governor will have to decide how to pay for Kynect as the federal government gradually slows down its funding, leaving the state to pick up the rest.
Conway said the state may have other options than taxing insurance premiums - including looking for inefficiencies in the Medicaid program. He cited the attorney general's office aggressive prosecution of Medicaid fraud, returning $315 million to the state's Medicaid program.
"It's a little early to declare how you are going to do that," Conway said. "But it will be a priority for us to make certain people that now have health insurance, especially kids, keep their health insurance."
Conway and his running mate, state Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, are the first Democrats to announce for the 2015 governor's race. Republican Hal Heiner, a former Louisville councilman, announced his candidacy in March.
Conway has been elected twice as Kentucky's chief law enforcement officer, defeating his Republican opponents by comfortable margins.
But he has lost campaigns for federal offices. In 2002, Conway nearly unseated Republican U.S. Rep. Anne Northup in a hard-fought congressional race in the Louisville-area 3rd District. In 2010, he lost a grueling campaign for the U.S. Senate to Republican Rand Paul.
Conway has portrayed himself as an activist attorney general with initiatives to crack down on prescription drug abuse and child porn cases with a cybercrimes unit he created. He targeted for-profit colleges that he accused of exaggerating job placement numbers so they would look more appealing.
Overly, his running mate, has been a member of the House Democratic leadership team as caucus chairwoman. She pushed for an independent review of the General Assembly's policies regarding workplace behavior amid the sexual harassment scandal that forced former state Rep. John Arnold from office.