Friday, October 30, 2015

Kentucky Governor Election

Status: Democrat Open
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Prediction: Tossup (D)

The South has become very Republican in recent years, and Kentucky now definitely votes that way at the federal level. However, it is one of the few remaining states where Democrats consistently win statewide at the state government level. The Commonwealth almost always has a Democrat as Governor and most expect that trend to continue as two term incumbent Steve Beshear exits the scene in Frankfort. Both parties have put up candidates that are considered flawed, and who have lost high profile statewide races recently. In spite of everything, Barack Obama and national Democrats are just so unpopular in Kentucky, that Republicans stand a decent chance of pulling off an Election Night upset this coming Tuesday, but the winner of the GOP primary might just be a bit too much for some to imagine as Governor.

Democrats early in the cycle united behind the candidacy of Jack Conway, the state's Attorney General. Considered a young and ambitious rising star, he was his party's nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and seemed to catch a break when Tea Party backed outsider Rand Paul knocked off the expected establishment backed candidate in the Republican primary that year. Conway turned his sights on Paul and tried to paint him as an extremist, but Kentucky was in a conservative mood that year and some of Conway's attacks were deemed over the line and backfired. After a rough campaign, Paul beat Conway easily. The Attorney General did manage to rebound enough to win reelection a year later and then ran this year for Governor. As his Lt. Governor running-mate, Conway selected State Representative Sannie Overly.

The Republican field for Governor was more crowded and a lot more competitive. The two leading candidates were expected to be James Comer, the statewide elected Agriculture Commissioner and wealthy businessman Hal Heiner, a former Louisville Council member and Mayoral candidate. The charges back and forth between these two candidates got pretty heated though and they worked to the benefit of a third contender. For one thing, Comer was accused of having been an abusive boyfriend back in college to a former girlfriend and that he took her to have an abortion. The Comer campaign denied the allegations and claimed that Heiner's camp was behind it, which they denied.

In the meantime, all this animosity worked to the benefit of insurance executive and Tea Party Executive Matt Bevin and his running-mate fellow Tea Party activist Jenean Hampton. While the other GOP candidates had picked running-mates with experience in elective office, Hampton had something in common with Bevin in that both had lost races in 2014. It was a race for State Representative in her case, but the Republican would become the first African-American to win statewide office in Kentucky.

Bevin's 2014 loss was far more high profile and occurred in a primary. He took on longtime incumbent U.S. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate.  While Bevin received a good deal of national attention for a while, McConnell worked hard to hold his seat in the primary, and with the help of the establishment and of his new colleague Rand Paul, was able to easily dispatch Bevin.

Bevin put the name recognition to use though by running for Governor and in the fractured field, with his Tea Party base, was able to win the primary with under 33 percent of the vote. Comer, the one time frontrunner finished less than 100 votes behind in the May voting. Despite all the ugliness surrounding his campaign, one has to wonder if he might have been able to sufficiently rebound enough to be a more viable GOP nominee against Conway. Comer has since entered a primary for an open Congressional seat which will be decided next year.

The Democrat started off the general election with a lead in the polls, but not by an overwhelming margin, and there was much thinking that the label Democrat might just be toxic for the party statewide. Bevin has definitely been in the game the whole time, but has lagged well behind Conway in fundraising and has been criticized for some less than conventional or distinguished behavior on the campaign trail such as crashing Kentucky Democrat Party headquarters to protest the way he has been characterized. At one point, the Republican Governors Association pulled its resources out of the race, leading many to think they had given up on the contest, although they later went back on the air. Talk has persisted that Bevin is a flawed candidate.

Nonetheless, anything can happen in Kentucky and neither party seems happy with their choices. As mentioned Conway and Bevin both lost big campaigns, as well as Bevin's running-mate. Mitch McConnell, now Senate Majority Leader,who last beat Bevin, and who has endorsed his candidacy for Governor is quite unpopular nationally and Rand Paul, the man who beat Conway to get to the Senate, is now a very unhappy near afterthought as a GOP Presidential candidate. The national attention brought to Kentucky over the saga of Kim Davis, the Democrat (who has now formally switched to Republican) County Clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to grant same sex marriage licenses became somewhat of a focal point in the race, with Bevin appealing to his conservative base by offering support for her and the Democrat Attorney General and nominee for Governor trying to walk a tighter rope on the issue with a more nuanced position.

The Bluegrass State is conservative enough that Bevin might absolutely win on Tuesday. Still, most recent polls show Conway ahead by two to five points. A GOP polling firm released a survey today showing an absolute dead heat and with Bevin ahead among those who will "certainly vote." There is also the wildcard factor of a liberal leaning Independent candidate, who is running alongside his wife for Lt. Governor, and is polling at about six percent. Oftentimes, Independent candidates fall short of their polling total on Election Day and every percent might make a difference in the margin between Conway and Bevin. Might that render the polls somewhat inaccurate and thus in favor of Bevin, or might that vote gravitate towards the Democrat?

Turnout in an off-year election with voter angst and dissatisfaction is so unpredictable that I think this race has to be called a  Tossup. With so few races going on in 2015, political watchers will over-analyze what will happen.  My hunch though is that Conway has a slight advantage and might even possibly win with a few points to spare. There is no doubt that the Democrat statewide office holder is more in line with who has traditionally gotten elected Governor of Kentucky, but if voters are thinking about national matters and anger towards Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton towards issues such as coal or gun control, the Tea Party developed GOP nominee might pull off an upset and an unconventional political comeback.

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