The Nation's Closest Race for Governor

In Kentucky, one of the few Southern states where Democrats still hold power, it's a tossup between a Republican businessman appealing to religious conservatives and a Democratic AG distancing himself from Obama.
by | October 19, 2015
Democrat Jack Conway, left, and Republican Matt Bevin during the Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate. (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

With just over two weeks left in the campaign, the most closely contested statewide race of the year is still very close.

Kentucky is one of the few places in the South where Democrats still hold power. With Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear forced out by term limits, Republicans started out the year expecting a terrific opportunity to replace him. The state votes solidly Republican in national elections. But the GOP nominee for governor, financier Matt Bevin, has made a lot of mistakes, and recent polls show Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway with a slight lead.

A Mason-Dixon poll released on October 9, for example, showed Conway with support from 43 percent of voters, compared with 41 percent for Bevin. (Some 6 percent of Kentucky voters favored independent candidate Drew Curtis, the founder of the Internet news aggregator Fark.com.)

"If I had to put money down today, I would put it on Conway," said Al Cross, a longtime columnist with the Louisville Courier-Journal. "But I think the race is still fundamentally a tossup."

Bevin was a surprise pick for the GOP. He ran an unsuccessful primary challenge last year against Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, and won the gubernatorial primary this year by only a few dozen votes.

There have been questions ever since about whether he can unite the party behind him. McConnell operatives have reportedly devoted their attention to recruiting candidates for next year's state House elections, hoping to build a GOP majority there, instead of helping Bevin.

And then late last month the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which had spent $3 million on ads in the race, decided to pull out. That might have been less a signal that the RGA had concluded the race was lost, than it was a reprimand against Bevin for not raising enough money on his own.

"That's really a story of the national people not liking to be seen as having to do all the work," said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. "Bevin hadn't really tried to do that much fundraising, from what I can tell."

Bevin responded to the RGA's move by buying more advertising time. But his Democratic rival has spent roughly twice as much on advertising ($2.5 million for Conway, compared with $1.3 million for Bevin). Their most recent disclosure reports show that Conway has $2.3 million in cash, compared with $674,000 for Bevin.

Conway, left, shaking hands with Steve Beshear, the current governor. (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Conway has been castigating Bevin for not releasing personal tax returns and for criticizing both the state's Medicaid expansion and early childhood education programs.

For his part, Bevin has been trying to appeal to religious conservatives. He's offered support for Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who became nationally famous for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a Supreme Court ruling.

A major part of Bevin's strategy, however, is to portray Conway as an Obama acolyte. "Jack Conway will continue the Barack Obama legacy, even after he is gone," Bevin likes to say.

Conway has tried to distance himself from Obama, however; he's sued the administration over coal regulations. Obama received only 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky in 2012 and his popularity there hasn't improved since.

"It's a conservative state and both candidates seem to be airing ads that are running away from Barack Obama," said Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political scientist. "That will play to the advantage of Bevin, more than Conway."

Bevin speaking at a rally for Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing a court order to issue same-sex marriage licenses. (Pablo Alcala/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)

Conway has been trying to pull off the difficult task of appealing to more conservative Democrats in coal country while also holding onto support from more liberal voters in Louisville and Lexington.

But Conway is not the sort of candidate who strongly engages people with the force of his personality. Instead, he is sometimes described as stilted or aloof. "The biggest obstacle Conway has is Obama," Cross said, "and the second biggest is himself. He doesn't make an effective pitch for himself."

Polls suggest that nearly all the other races for constitutional offices are tossups as well. Although Republicans have done well in Kentucky at the presidential and Congressional levels, that hasn't translated at the state level. Gov. Beshear won re-election easily in 2011, the year after Rand Paul crushed Conway in a U.S. Senate race.

"We have this stereotype that lower turnout is good for Republicans, but you wouldn't think that by looking at Kentucky," said Voss. "If you look at the last election we had, you would not say lower turnout favors Republicans, especially when they're unenthusiastic about their standard-bearer, the way they seem to be."

But all the races this fall are so close that control of the governorship and most of Kentucky's government could tip either way on Election Day.

"Neither candidate has really excited a whole lot of people," Clayton said, "and that's not going to help turnout at all."

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.