There are six weeks until the 2019 primary for statewide constitutional offices, including the biggest prize of all — the governorship.
Yet we’ve heard little about it and have only recently begun to see television ads by two of the three viable Democratic candidates. House Minority Leader, Rocky Adkins; Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear; and former state Auditor Adam Edelen (along with Geoff Young who runs for something every year) are competing for the Democratic nomination.
Incumbent Republican Matt Bevin has a primary challenger, state Rep. Robert Goforth of East Bernstadt, but he represents little threat to Bevin.
Some Democrats think Bevin can be easily beaten in 2019. Bevin’s favorability numbers are low – he was rated the fourth least popular governor in the country in a Morning Consult poll. He has repeatedly angered and insulted teachers and the Kentucky Education Association; he’s often crossed ways with Republican legislators; and his efforts to cut back on Medicaid, potentially taking health insurance coverage from 100,000 people, could backfire.
It’s a critical election for Kentucky Democrats. Kentucky has become a solidly Republican state and President Donald Trump remains popular here. Democrats understand this might be their last best chance to capture the governor’s office for 20 years.
But it’s tough to oust an incumbent. Those Morning Consult poll respondents weren’t asked to choose between Bevin and an alternative. Recent Kentucky elections seem to indicate nearly any Kentucky Republican can win so long as he or she casts the Democrat as a liberal. Give him an opponent in those polls and Bevin might fare better.
As for the teachers, I’m not so sure they’re as powerful as everyone thought. Remember when their mantra was “Remember in November” after Republicans snuck through a pension bill with no Democratic votes? That boded well for Democrats last November, but they netted a gain of just a couple of seats in the House and lost ground in the Senate.
It’s not uncommon to hear a Republican state lawmaker privately criticize Bevin. Many everyday Republicans are frustrated with him. But I can’t imagine many Republicans voting against only the third Republican governor in the last 76 years. And remember, there are also a lot of legacy Democrats in Kentucky who routinely vote Republican.
Money won’t be a problem for Bevin who self-financed his 2015 race. He’s close to Vice President Mike Pence and seems to have garnered Trump’s favor. Kentucky remains Trump country and Kentucky’s gubernatorial election is one of only three this year and probably the only competitive race. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump campaign for Bevin.
It won’t be easy for any of the Democrats. Bevin has bashed Beshear over members of his dad’s administration who’ve pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Some voters may resent what they see as political dynasties or may suffer from Beshear fatigue.
Edelen is trying to run a progressive campaign in a very conservative state. Four years ago, he lost a race for re-election no one thought he should lose. He blames the poor showing of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, but Democrats Beshear and Alison Lundergan Grimes won on that same ticket.
Adkins isn’t well known across Kentucky, but he’s likeable and can relate to rural voters, something Democrats must do to win in Kentucky. But the things that make him attractive to rural voters aren’t as attractive in Jefferson and Fayette counties, which have disproportionate weight in a Democratic primary. He might be the best general election candidate but the most vulnerable in the primary. Can he raise enough money to introduce himself to all of Kentucky?
A lot can happen in six months. We don’t know who his Democratic opponent will be and Bevin has a penchant for saying outrageous things. But despite those poll numbers, for now Bevin seems a likely bet for re-election.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.