The Kentucky Governor’s Derby: Takeaways

By: Jonah Cohen

Most of the country may not have noticed, but Tuesday was in fact election day in America. Granted, the race for governor in Kentucky is not a national attention-grabber for any non-election nerds outside of the Bluegrass State, but fortunately I, an unabashed election nerd, can recap the race for you right here. We’ll talk about the candidates, the campaign, and ask the big question: did any of it matter?

The Candidates:

After a nasty three-way primary, Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin emerged as the Republican nominee. Bevin, originally from New Hampshire, moved to Kentucky in 1999 and pursued various business ventures from asset management to bell manufacturing (really). He burst onto the national scene in 2014, when he challenged then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from the right in the Republican primary for Senate. Bevin was supported by conservative talk radio and the notorious Senate Conservatives Fund, but eventually lost by 25 points to the better-funded and organized McConnell. Bevin wasted little time declaring himself a candidate for governor in 2015 to replace popular term-limited Democratic governor Steve Beshear. Bevin won the Republican primary with 33% of the vote, topping former State Agriculture Comissioner James Comer by a paltry 83 votes. Bevin can credit his victory to the splitting of the “establishment” vote between Comer and former Louisville Metro Council member Hal Heiner.

In sharp contrast to the messy Republican primary fight, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway sailed to his party’s nomination without meaningful opposition, allowing him to stock a campaign war chest for the general election while Bevin emerged bruised and battered from the GOP side. Conway, a Louisville native, waged an unsuccessful campaign for the House of Representatives in 2002, narrowly falling to incumbent Republican Anne Northup. He was elected Attorney General in 2007, and soon ran for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning. His opponent in the general election was none other than current presidential candidate Rand Paul. Conway consistently trailed in polls in a bad election year for Democrats, despite his financial advantage. He tried to revive his campaign with the famous “Aqua Buddha” ad (look it up), but eventually lost by a disappointing margin of 56–44.

The Campaign:

Bevin came out of the primary season damaged by his nomination fight, while Conway stood clean as a whistle. Conway held consistent, albeit narrow leads in the polls throughout the campaign, despite Bevin’s significant self-funding. Bevin emphasized his outsider credentials, a strategy with great appeal to the many social conservatives in Kentucky in the summer of Trump and Carson. He tied Conway to President Obama at every opportunity, not a bad strategy in Kentucky, and announced that he would revoke Beshear’s Medicaid expansion. Conway emphasized his Kentucky roots while painting Bevin as a carpetbagger, and ran ads attacking Bevin’s opposition to Medicaid expansion. He avoided discussion of social issues and positioned himself close to the popular Beshear while as far as possible from the President. Conway’s consistent polling leads caused the Republican Governors’ Association to pull their ads off the air in the last two weeks of the campaign, but they eventually reversed course and moved back in. This development was key.

The Result:

In a surprise (though not exactly a shock), Bevin defeated Conway by a sound 53–44 margin, with 3 percent going to independent Drew Curtis. Early election returns looked bad for Conway, as he ran well behind Beshear’s 2011 totals in key Democratic strongholds, and the early numbers proved accurate. Pollsters will have to do some soul-searching after seriously missing the final margin, and Bevin will become only the second Republican governor of Kentucky since 1971.

The Takeaways:

  1. The days of Democratic state officeholders in the South are drawing to a close. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes narrowly won reelection, and Andy Beshear, the outgoing governor’s son, was elected Attorney General by less than half a percentage point. But Democrats had controlled state offices in Kentucky largely uninterrupted for decades, and one of the last bastions of the Democratic Party in the South seems to be slipping away.
  2. It’s a bad day for a lot of people in Kentucky. Bevin’s election means that 400,000 Kentuckians will have their health insurance taken away if Bevin follows through on his pledge to roll back Beshear’s Medicaid expansion, a promise he seems likely to keep.
  3. 2015 is truly the year of the outsider candidate. Barely a year ago, Bevin was soundly defeatde by the ultra-establishment Mitch McConnell in his Senate primary. But after a bruising primary brawl, Bevin coasted to victory in the general, defying pollsters’ expectations and running largely on his outsider background. It remains to be seen if 2016 will be a continuation of this phenomenon.
  4. No, this election does not signal imminent doom for the national Democratic Party. Many hyperventilating thinkpieces have doubtless already been written eulogizing the Democratic Party based on Kentucky’s gubernatorial election. It is true that the Democrats must find ways to turn out their base and build their party in non-presidential years, but a gubernatorial loss in a state hardly containing much fertile ground for national Democrats should not cause panic at the DNC. If the GOP builds its lead in the Senate and takes the White House in 2016, then we can discuss causes for concern for the Democrats. Until then, it’s no more than an upset in the Kentucky Derby.