Running for governor is unlike any other political contest in Kentucky. It attracts more attention from Kentucky voters and usually gets personal and nasty.
During most of my lifetime, the governor’s election was decided by a typically crowded Democratic Primary. The winner would usually then coast to election over a second-rate Republican.
Times have certainly changed. I know many Democrats who fear 2019 is their last legitimate opportunity to regain the governor’s mansion for a generation or begin a comeback in the General Assembly.
That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee who will try to topple controversial and unconventional incumbent Matt Bevin. Bevin is loathed by Democrats and most teachers and he’s often at odds with key figures in his own party.
According to the Morning Consult poll, Bevin is the least popular governor in the country, with a negative 33-52 unfavorable rating. Bevin dismisses the poll as “baloney” and correctly points out he trailed Democrat Jack Conway in the polls throughout the 2015 race and then won by 10 percentage points.
But Bevin won less that 50 percent of the vote in the Republican primary — not very impressive for an incumbent.
So the numbers say it should be easy for Beshear. But once monolithically Democratic Kentucky has turned solidly Republican. Some Democrats fear the Beshear name won’t be helpful in 2019 after eight years as governor by Steve Beshear, Andy’s dad, and some scandals near the end of the Beshear administration.
The most notable of those is the conviction of Tim Longmeyer — Steve Beshear’s secretary of personnel hired by Andy Beshear when he took office as Attorney General — for bribery. Although investigators say neither Beshear knew what Longmeyer was up to, his name is likely to pop up in a lot of ads by Bevin and outside groups.
I talked to a veteran Democratic political consultant this week who told me numbers like Bevin’s normally would guarantee he couldn’t be re-elected. An incumbent below 50 percent is in trouble and one below the mid-forties is probably doomed. But neither of us sense lot of excitement for Beshear in rural Kentucky.
That’s where social issues become critical for conservative Kentucky voters, issues like reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Bevin vigorously opposes both; Beshear supports them and has declined to defend court challenges to some abortion bills passed by the Republican General Assembly. That explains in part why Bevin is most unpopular in the urban counties of Jefferson and Fayette which also happen to be Beshear strongholds.
So it’s good news for Beshear that Rocky Adkins, one of his opponents in the primary, has so quickly and vigorously gotten behind Beshear.
Adkins relates well to rural voters and voters from his native eastern Kentucky. The Democratic House Minority Leader from Morehead, voted for a couple of those bills restricting abortions. Rural voters respond well to both his folksy style and moderate political philosophy.
Adkins can introduce Beshear to a lot of rural Kentucky where conservative voters are most skeptical of him.
Kentuckians expect to see their governors and candidates for governor in the flesh. Bevin was good at that during the 2015 campaign — but there’ve been some rumblings out in the state that he hasn’t come back as governor.
Andy Beshear doesn’t have his dad’s rural twang and can’t claim birth in a rural county. The elder Beshear often visited rural Kentucky as governor and seemed at home when he did. Andy has spent much of his life working for an elite law firm in Kentucky’s largest city and seems a bit awkward in smaller, more rural areas. But despite those bad Bevin numbers, Beshear needs help from rural Kentucky. He can’t win by just winning Fayette and Jefferson counties.
That’s why I expect to see Adkins often on the campaign trail in rural Kentucky with Beshear — and likely to land a top post in a Beshear administration should Beshear win.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.