Kentucky Governor's Race: A Battle for the Future of the South

Republicans want to make Kentucky the next Southern state with a GOP governor. It won't be easy.
by | August 2015
Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, left, during a campaign stop at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Louisville, Ky. (AP)

Matt Bevin needs more voters like June McWhorter.

In what may be the most surprising news in state politics this year, Bevin ended up winning the GOP nomination for governor of Kentucky. At the end of a brutal and divisive primary, he wound up on top by a mere 83 votes. McWhorter, meanwhile, is a friend of James Comer, the second-place finisher, but she now says she’s backing Bevin all the way. “When the [primary] race was decided, I said, ‘We are now Bevin people,’ and I hope we can get everybody on board with that,” McWhorter says. “Don’t let the Democrats win because we’re too stubborn to vote for somebody.”

Not everyone is as convinced. Bevin entered the race as a suspect quantity. The financier burst onto Kentucky’s political scene last year with a high-profile but far from successful primary challenge against Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. After he lost to McConnell, Bevin launched a gubernatorial campaign -- late -- and had a hard time recruiting a running mate. Although McConnell and his crew are now saying all the right things about backing Bevin, it’s not clear he’ll get much more by way of practical support. Plenty of Republicans, sore from two contentious primaries in as many years, are still waiting to be convinced. “Down in our part of the state, I would describe the mood as unenthused,” says Jim Henderson, county judge executive in Simpson County, which is south of Bowling Green. “I’m a conservative Republican, and it would be hard for me to vote different than that, but I have to be won over.”

That has many Republicans worried that they’ve blown a golden opportunity. The GOP will have no trouble winning the other two elections for governor this fall, in Louisiana and Mississippi. Kentucky was never going to be a gimme, but the state appeared prime to change color from purple to red. McConnell won last November’s general election by 15 points. In 2012, President Obama got blown out by an even bigger margin. The idea that Kentucky is bound to follow the rest of the South in fully embracing the Republican Party seems inevitable. As even Ray Jones, Democratic leader in the state Senate, laments, “We have been a victim of a drastic shift to the left in terms of the national Democratic Party.”

With popular Democrat Steve Beshear term-limited out of office, Kentucky should be ripe for the GOP’s picking. But that may not happen this year. Bevin remains little-known in the state. He’s had to introduce himself not only to the mass of voters but to many GOP donors and local party chairs. When Bevin entered the race in January, Jesse Benton, McConnell’s former campaign manager, said that “Republicans should not, and will not, take Bevin seriously.”

If Bevin has a tough job ahead of him in bringing his own party together, however, the same can be said about Jack Conway, the state attorney general and Democratic nominee. While Conway faced no serious threat in the Democratic primary, many voters in the party remain iffy about him. Democrats continue to enjoy a big advantage in voter registration in Kentucky, but many thousands in their ranks are conservatives who have yet to formally switch allegiance to the GOP. “He’s hardly the most competitive choice they could have turned up -- a liberal lawyer from the biggest city,” says Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist. “Selling his message statewide will be a challenge.”

Although he's been elected attorney general twice, Conway has never won a tough race. (AP)

Conway is emphasizing his support for coal and guns, but he refused to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in court. Opinion on that issue has shifted around the country -- and the Supreme Court has made it a done deal -- but that doesn’t mean Kentucky voters are happy about it. All of this leaves Conway with a challenge. To win, he has to come across as the second coming of Steve Beshear, not the second cousin of Barack Obama.

But the funny thing about this race is that Democrats may be hungrier to win, even though they’re the incumbent party. Republicans seem sure the state will eventually fall into their hands, and therefore they may not be overly worked up about Bevin’s chances. Some already talk about concentrating on winning the state House in 2016. An all-GOP legislature would neutralize Conway, who could then be defeated in the next election.

Democrats are worried about just that scenario. They may have their doubts about Conway, but they are completely focused on winning. Once power slips out of Democratic hands in the South, it’s proven impossible so far to win it back. In Kentucky, Democrats know the governor’s office is their Alamo. “We’re fired up on the Democratic side,” says state Rep. Derrick Graham. “We know how crucial this election is for the state and for our party.”

It’s possible that Democrats haven’t yet hit bottom in state elections. When Obama took office, Democrats held 28 governorships. Now they’re down to 18. Holding power where governors are term-limited has proven difficult. Three of the four states that Republicans picked up last year -- Arkansas, Maryland and Massachusetts -- were vacated by term-limited Democrats. Pat Quinn of Illinois was the only incumbent Democrat governor who was defeated. Next year, Democratic governors will be forced to retire in Missouri and West Virginia, states that haven’t supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton. Republicans are near their post-war high in governorships, but instead of being overextended, they continue to find opportunities. “The map is tricky for the Democrats,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political newsletter. “There are not a whole lot of places where they can credibly play offense, and they have to play defense in a lot of places.”

But Democrats have been able to play pretty good defense in Kentucky. The party has won nine out of the last 10 elections for governor and currently holds five out of six statewide offices. Significantly, they held onto their state House majority last fall. In fact, the GOP didn’t gain a single seat, even as Republicans were sweeping legislative contests around the country. “Democrats lost virtually everywhere in 2014, except in Kentucky,” Beshear says. “The Republicans threw a lot of money into state House races, but at the end of the day, [Democrats] came within 200 votes of adding a seat.”

Kentucky is a poor state, and there’s a streak of economic populism that keeps Democratic support for government programs salient. It was the first state to adopt the Common Core education standards, and Obama singled out Beshear at last year’s State of the Union address, touting the success of the state’s health coverage exchange, Kynect. Thanks to Kynect and the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, the percentage of residents lacking insurance dropped from just over 20 percent in 2013 to just under 10 percent last year.

Beshear took office just ahead of the Great Recession. Since 2009, the state has added more than 125,000 jobs, according to a recent analysis by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The state’s unemployment rate is below the national average. Wages are up, too, although employment gains have been heavily concentrated in the state’s most populous counties. For all those reasons, when you ask Kentucky Democrats about Conway, they tend to talk about Beshear. “From a public policy standpoint, this state is moving in the right direction on every front,” says Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen. “That’s why the kind of continuity we would see with a Conway administration would be so positive for Kentucky.”

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear (AP)

Conway is seeking to run on his own record as state attorney general, bragging about having slashed the office’s budget, fighting Internet porn, and prosecuting prescription drug abuse and heroin cases. Conway has brought in millions of dollars in Medicaid and mortgage fraud settlements and took the lead among state AGs in investigating abuses at for-profit colleges. For all that, Conway failed to take advantage of the long period of GOP in-fighting during the spring to define himself and his aspirations as a potential governor. He’s made job creation the centerpiece of his campaign, but he didn’t release a detailed plan of any sort until June.

Although he’s been elected attorney general twice, Conway has never won a tough race. He lost a congressional election back in 2002 and got beaten badly by Rand Paul in the 2010 race for Senate. Luallen, a longtime friend, concedes he can come across as “formal” on the stump. Others are less kind when it comes to describing Conway’s style. Conway himself admits he’s not natural as a backslapper. “His biggest problem is that he’s just perceived as not personable,” says a Democratic consultant. “He’s a good-looking guy and he’s shy, so he seems stuck up.”

It’s always a trick for Kentucky Democrats to appeal to liberals in Louisville and Lexington without alienating conservative stalwarts in rural areas. Conway has been trying hard to straddle that divide. Like other Democrats, Conway is fond of pointing out that 500,000 more residents now have health insurance. But he knows that while Kynect has been successful, it suddenly turns unpopular when referred to as Obamacare. “I don’t think you run on it or run away from it,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. Conway acknowledges voting for Obama -- something Alison Lundergan Grimes awkwardly refused to do in her race last year against McConnell -- but then immediately notes that he sued him, referring to his status as the only Democratic attorney general to join the suit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon rules that was decided by the Supreme Court in June. “While he may not be the classic good ol’ boy,” says former Democratic congressman Mike Ward, “he certainly is capable of carrying out our goals.”

If Conway can come across as stiff, Bevin is a born salesman. He’s been largely a self-funded candidate to this point, having made his fortune in financial management and consulting. But on the stump, he talks about having “been poor” and serving in the Army -- portraying himself a simple guy who grew up in the country, even if that countryside wasn’t in Kentucky. (Bevin was raised in rural New Hampshire.) “I’ve walked in the shoes of average Kentuckians in a way my opponent has not,” Bevin says. “I’ve created more jobs this month than he has in his entire life.”

Bevin loves to deride Conway as a career politician, but Democrats warn in turn of Bevin’s complete lack of experience in government. Some Republicans are nervous about his potential approach, worrying that he’ll push things too far when it comes to gutting programs such as education and roads. His campaign blueprint for the state calls for abolishing inheritance taxes and slashing personal and corporate incomes taxes. Bevin may be a great salesman, but to some extent he’s selling spinach, offering frequent warnings that the state is broke and can’t meet its commitments when it comes to matters such as pensions and Medicaid. “You deserve better than people who blow smoke and make promises,” Bevin told a gathering of county officials in June. “The reality is this state is broken. I can tell you, ‘I can give you this, I’m going to give you that,’ but where does the money come from?”

Democrats have wasted no time in portraying Bevin as a heartless millionaire ready to unravel the state’s most popular programs. “Several Southern states are in a race back to the 19th century,” says Beshear. “Matt Bevin is clear that he wants to throw everything out that’s been done and have very little or no government, if that’s possible.”

In demonizing Bevin, Democrats are building on a foundation laid by McConnell, who spent millions of dollars attacking Bevin for all manner of offenses -- real or exaggerated. No matter how upset Bevin became in response, McConnell kept piling it on. He had plenty of accusations left in his file cabinet, and Democrats are bound and determined to use any material they can get their hands on. “There has been $25 million used to paint me a certain way,” says Bevin. “Ninety-eight percent, not true.”

Bevin doesn’t want to be put on the defensive. He needs to make himself appealing to voters who are skeptical about him -- including the two-thirds of the GOP primary electorate who voted for somebody else. Bevin refused to endorse McConnell in last year’s Senate race, leading some Republicans to joke they’ll do just as much for him as he did for McConnell. The state GOP is being pulled in multiple directions -- with McConnell running the Senate and Rand Paul running for president -- while Democrats are fixated on the governorship as their firewall. That leaves Bevin searching for more people like June McWhorter.

But even McWhorter isn’t convinced Bevin can win. “I think it will be tough for him,” she says. She’s not alone in that assessment. The two candidates offer a stark choice on the issues, but each faces a big job convincing the many remaining skeptics in his own party that he’d be a great governor. It’s telling that each of them likes to brag about quiet offers of support he’s received from folks in the other party.