Two days after what some apparently view as a puzzling election result in Kentucky is hardly time enough to analyze accurately what happened and why. But I think we can draw some broad conclusions.
I am not among those who see Andy Beshear’s 5,000 vote win over incumbent Republican and Donald Trump buddy Matt Bevin as an indication Trump or Republicans are in trouble here in 2020. Kentucky is red; it was red before Trump; and Trump won the state by 30 points in 2016. He’ll win it again in 2020 — assuming he’s on the ballot. (I’m also not among those who think no Republican senator would ever vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial.)
Republicans swept the rest of the state’s constitutional offices Tuesday, flipping two (Attorney General and Secretary of State). Down ballot Republicans out polled Bevin, sometimes by large margins.
(Let’s pause to credit Republican and Kentucky voters for willingness to elect the new Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, the first African American to win a statewide office in his own right. He lacks experience but he’s smart and he created the kind of history Kentucky ought to be proud of.)
I wouldn’t put much stock in national pundits’ conclusions that Tuesday’s results in Kentucky are a harbinger for Democratic wins next year. Results in other states may encourage Democrats, but Kentucky’s probably shouldn’t.
Bevin lost because of his temperament and personality, his mean-spirited attacks on teachers, public servants, the press and political opponents. He misunderstood his 2015 win in a low-turnout election, facing a politically inept opponent, and riding political winds he didn’t create. He benefited from the controversy over same sex marriage created by Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and the nascent rise and popularity of Donald Trump.
Bevin used to call his 10 point plus win in 2015 a “mandate.” But turnout was 30 percent, meaning Bevin won roughly 16 percent of the electorate. But as with everything, Bevin never considered the possibility he might be wrong about something or bother to listen to advice from some in his own party that he might want to treat people better and pursue his political agenda a bit more civilly and a little less personally.
He also dumped his lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, from the ticket, someone willing to run with him in 2015 when few others would and who was and is backed by Kentucky tea party members. She was spotted in the crowd at Beshear’s stop in Bowling Green Monday night. That surely wasn’t the only reason Beshear won Warren County — but it didn’t hurt either.
That’s not to rob Andy Beshear of any credit. He ran a smart, well-organized, disciplined campaign. He saw the window of opportunity which came before he might have expected and unlike most politicians he seized it, knowing it might not come around again.
He effectively courted teachers and union members, both of whom felt betrayed by Bevin, and he chose a smart, civics minded and attractive running mate in Jacqueline Coleman, an educator and daughter of a retired, well respected legislator. Beshear also benefited from the enthusiastic support of one of his primary opponents in rural and eastern Kentucky, Rocky Adkins, and he implemented a strong get out the vote operation.
Bevin lost by more than 5,000 votes, but as of Thursday morning hadn’t conceded, seeking a re-canvass and claiming unnamed, unspecified “irregularities” in Tuesday’s vote. For those who’ve dealt with the man, that’s hardly surprising, even for someone who won his 2015 primary by 83 votes.
Now Beshear confronts the problems Bevin faced: underfunded pensions, an under financed state budget which forces cuts in education and other vital services, prisons and jails bursting with people who present little danger to the public — and no easy or painless way to pay for the things he must do or wants to do.
Democrats and Republicans should wish him luck because Kentucky needs him to succeed.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.