Last Updated March 21, 2019 at 10:44 p.m. ET
Heading into Tuesday’s primary, Gov. Matt Bevin looked potentially vulnerable for reelection this year, despite Kentucky’s strong Republican voting habits. He’s still favored in the fall, but his weak showing makes him look beatable.
Against three opponents, Bevin took just 52 percent of the GOP primary vote, which was open only to Republican voters. His relatively little-known lead challenger, state Rep. Robert Goforth, took 39 percent of the statewide vote, outpacing the incumbent in more than 30 counties.
Bevin will face state Attorney General Andy Beshear, who came out on top of a four-way Democratic primary. Beshear’s father, Steve, preceded Bevin in office. As attorney general, the younger Beshear has already clashed with Bevin, suing the governor repeatedly.
"We did something we're going to do in November," Beshear said during his victory speech Tuesday. "We got more raw votes than Matt Bevin."
A weak showing by an incumbent among voters of his own party can be a real danger sign. Last year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner took just 51.5 percent of the primary vote on his way to being crushed by Democrat J.B. Pritzker in the fall.
Of course, Illinois is a much bluer state than Kentucky, which gave President Trump a 30-percentage point winning margin in 2016. Trump was prominently featured in Bevin’s advertising and tweeted his support for the governor on Tuesday, attesting that he’s “done a fantastic job.”
Declaring victory, Bevin said that Beshear is too liberal for the state and that the race will showcase a “night and day” difference between the candidates, notably on abortion.
“By choosing Andy Beshear as their nominee, Kentucky Democrats have embraced a liberal politician and insider who thinks he’s entitled to the state’s highest office just because of his last name,” Amelia Chassé Alcivar, communications director for the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement.
Bevin ranks as the least popular governor in the country in Morning Consult’s gubernatorial approval polls. Last month, only 33 percent of Kentucky voters approved of Bevin’s performance. He often draws boos when he appears in public -- even at the televised trophy ceremony at the Kentucky Derby in May.
“He really dodged a bullet not getting a first-tier challenger” in the primary, says Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University who is active in Republican politics.
In 2015, soon after failing in a primary bid against U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, Bevin made a surprise late entrance in the gubernatorial race. His two primary opponents did him the favor of attacking each other mercilessly. In the end, Bevin was the man left standing, winning the nomination by just 83 votes. Polls showed him losing to Democrat Jack Conway that fall, but Bevin won easily.
Since taking office, Bevin has been a polarizing figure, even within his own party. He unabashedly disparages his opponents. Both this year and last, Bevin suggested that children were sexually assaulted because teachers were on strike.
“He not only has clashed with the Democrats, as one might expect from a conservative Republican governor, but he’s clashed with Republican leaders in the state legislature as well,” says Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist. “Some of them have openly criticized him.”
Republican legislators, for instance, were unhappy when Bevin vetoed a bill last month meant to relieve government agencies of rising pension costs.
“He has not followed the conventional norms in terms of engaging legislators and building those relationships,” says Lasley, the Western Kentucky professor.
Bevin is least popular among more moderate Republican voters. Goforth sought to position himself as more conservative than Bevin on abortion, which made him a less-than-perfect choice among that faction of GOP primary voters.
Still, Bevin’s weak showing point on Tuesday shows that he has not succeeded in winning over a substantial share of the voters within his own party.
The fact that Bevin fell well below 60 percent of the primary vote will “get people’s attention,” says Lasley.
The Democratic Vote Splits
Beshear enjoyed consistent leads in polling and name recognition among Democrats. Nevertheless, the primary exposed some vulnerabilities.
Bevin knocked Beshear for failing to break the 40 percent mark in his primary. Beshear took 38 percent, compared with 32 percent for state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and 28 percent for former state Auditor Adam Edelen.
Adkins carried more than 60 mostly rural counties, dominating his home base of Eastern Kentucky. Adkins -- who voted for three out of four anti-abortion bills passed by the legislature this year – succeeded in his effort to appeal to the state’s once-dominant conservative Democrats.
But Beshear carried both Jefferson and Fayette counties, which include Louisville and Lexington, respectively. He had to split the more progressive urban vote with Edelen, who attacked Beshear with increasing fervor as the vote neared.
Edelen ads pointed out that Beshear’s first deputy attorney general, Timothy Longmeyer, pleaded guilty to soliciting more than $200,000 worth of bribes. Beshear countered that he appointed the special prosecutor who convicted Longmeyer. A super PAC supporting Edelen -- funded largely by his running mate -- also ran an ad targeting Beshear for representing, as a private attorney, a Boy Scout leader accused of abuse.
While countering Edelen’s attacks, Beshear kept his focus trained on Bevin. Some Democratic voters said they had soured on Edelen because of the negative turn he’d taken.
Still, he opened up lines of attack that Bevin can exploit in the fall. Bevin has already spent more than $1 million in state money on legal fees to investigate alleged corruption in Steve Beshear’s administration.
Conversely, American Bridge, a Democratic political action committee, released an ad Tuesday claiming that it’s Bevin who is “too corrupt for the Commonwealth,” citing examples of tax breaks that went to his campaign donors.
The Republican Advantage
Beshear and Bevin have openly feuded over the past four years. The attorney general has sued the governor at least six times, claiming Bevin overstepped his authority in several areas, including higher education and pensions. Beshear has prevailed in the cases decided thus far. He claims this shows he knows how to beat Bevin and can do the same in the political arena.
“Suing me is not beating me,” Bevin said Tuesday night.
The governor has the advantage of running on an improved economy. Kentucky’s unemployment rate is 4 percent, down from 5.3 percent when he took office. Bevin claims that the right-to-work legislation he signed has helped attract $17 billion worth of investment and create 49,000 jobs.
There are still more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in Kentucky, but their edge has eroded in recent years. In Kentucky, as well as many other states, rural voters are increasingly supporting the GOP, including many who remain registered as Democrats.
In 2016, Republicans won control of the state House for the first time since 1920. It was the last chamber Democrats controlled anywhere in the South. The GOP currently has a 61-39 majority in the Kentucky House.
That same year, Trump carried 70 percent of the vote in Eastern Kentucky's Elliott County, which had never before voted Republican in its entire 147-year history. It was the Democratic Party’s longest winning streak in presidential voting anywhere in the country -- and it came to a crashing halt.
To beat Bevin this year, Democrats will need to win back at least some of the vote in places like Elliott County, which is Adkins’ home base.
For that reason, some observers in Kentucky thought that Adkins could have presented a stronger general election challenge against Bevin than Beshear, although it’s unlikely that progressive voters would have been excited about him.
If Bevin is beatable in a red state, it may well have more to do with his own weaknesses than who his opponent is. Bevin will still be favored to win in November, but his odds have gotten shorter.
“A lot of voters here vote Republican in national elections but don’t think of themselves as Republicans,” says Voss. “They wish they had Democrats they could justify voting for.”