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Republican Matt Bevin Wins Kentucky Governor's Race

The Republican businessman will succeed term-limited Democrat Steve Beshear, weakening the Democrats' power in one of the last Southern states where they still have some.

Kentucky Election - Governor
Governor-elect Matt Bevin giving his victory speech at the Republican Party celebration.
(AP/Timothy D. Easley)
This is part of 2015 elections coverage. Get results of other ballot measures and races here.

A year ago, no one expected Matt Bevin would run for Kentucky governor. On Tuesday, the Republican captured that office.

Bevin had trailed Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway in polls throughout the race, but in the end, he won handily. Bevin took 53 percent of the vote to Conway's 44 percent and will succeed term-limited Democrat Steve Beshear.

"I don't think even Bevin's own people were so optimistic that they saw this coming," said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.

In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant was easily re-elected as expected against Robert Gray, a little-known, underfunded truck driver who had surprisingly captured the Democratic nomination.

The one potential remaining win for Democrats in gubernatorial races this year is in Louisiana, where state Rep. John Bel Edwards has enjoyed a sizable lead in polls against U.S. Sen. David Vitter heading into the Nov. 21 runoff.

Given the inaccuracy of polls in Kentucky, Democrats should not count on winning in a red state.

"This is the second election in a row where the polls have just been unable to capture a strong Republican lean in the electorate," Voss said. "Republican electorates are way more motivated than our current technology was able to pinpoint."

Although conservative, Kentucky had elected many Democrats to office. Republicans went into the election holding just one of the six statewide elected positions. Now they have four, with Democrats barely holding onto the state attorney general and secretary of state positions.

Kentucky Republicans have already aimed for control of the state House next year. It's the last legislative chamber in the South in Democratic hands. Democrats have a 54 to 46 advantage in the House, but observers speculated on election night that Bevin might appoint some Democratic legislators to state positions, while others might switch (as has happened in other Southern chambers about to tip the GOP's way).

Conway and Bevin both ran very negative campaigns.

"I know that many of you are weary of turning on the TV and seeing my evil twin," Bevin said in his victory speech. "I don't know who he is, exactly, but he's been up to no good and he's been giving me a bad name."

Conway attacked Bevin for not releasing his personal tax returns and for changing his positions on early childhood education and Medicaid expansion.

Conway's constant attacks on his Republican opponent might not have been the best strategy, suggested Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville.

"Rather than highlighting the positive aspects, Conway may have overdone it with negative advertising," Clayton said. "There was a lot of apathy in the race and Conway didn't inspire people to want to go out and work for him or vote."

Conway always had to pull off a difficult campaign, portraying himself as a friend of coal and an opponent of President Obama, while also seeking to bring out liberal voters in Democratic Louisville and Lexington.

The strategy didn't work. Conway ran several thousand votes behind other Democratic candidates in the urban counties. And Bevin had no trouble winning in coal country.

"Obama's not popular here and Conway trying to be Republican-lite in some areas didn't seem to catch on," Clayton said.

Bevin had emphasized his support for Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In his speech Tuesday night, Bevin said there was no need to apologize for the "core Christian values" that have made the country and the state exceptional.


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)

Bevin hammered at that message in the closing days of the campaign, while also running positive ads showcasing his large family. What has been a winning formula for Republicans in the South -- bashing Obama -- worked again.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) noted that it had run 10 television ads "detailing Jack Conway's long record of support for President Obama's failed policies." The RGA had canceled its advertising in late September, pressuring Bevin, a wealthy financier, to pay for more out of his own money. The RGA came back big in the campaign's final two weeks, spending $2.5 million, bringing its total for the race up to $6 million. Bevin also received significant support in the closing days from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.

Bevin ran an unconventional campaign. Having lost a primary challenge last year against Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the U.S. Senate, Bevin lacked core support within the party. He barely prevailed in the May primary, winning by 83 votes after his two major opponents had vilified one another.

During the campaign, Bevin was very sensitive, once stopping by the Kentucky Democratic Party's headquarters to complain about a sign hanging outside reading “We Still Can't Trust Matt Bevin.” He squabbled with Kentucky reporters who complained that sometimes wasn't telling the truth in the course of the campaign.

Memories of intraparty fights and the back and forth between Bevin and the media didn't seem to drive away many voters.

"If Bevin and Vitter both win, it would show that even when Republicans nominate bad candidates, they can win races [in the South]," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia. "Bevin's victory shows that Kentucky has moved more Republican down the ballot."

The question now facing Bevin is how much he'll resist the state's Medicaid expansion. He's initially suggested he would repeal it entirely but later suggested he would just scale it back after extracting concessions from the feds. He said he does plan to dismantle the state-run private health insurance exchange.

Bevin's victory came just one day after Montana won official approval to become the 30th state to expand Medicaid. Despite its political and legal difficulties, all the momentum has been on the side of implementing the so-called Obamacare law.

Kentucky has seen one of the largest drops of any state in the rate of its uninsured residents since the law took effect, so observers around the country will be watching to see what happens.

This is part of 2015 elections coverage. Get results of other ballot measures and races here.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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