Four years ago in this space, I wrote about the lackluster race for governor between Democrat Jack Conway and eventual winner Republican Matt Bevin.
According to the traditional signs — consistent polling leads, presumed better party organization, Bevin’s lukewarm support among many in his own party — they suggested a Conway victory.
Not all that many people seemed interested in the race and despite Kentucky’s unmistakable turn to the Republican Party, the “smart money” was on Conway including mine. But, I continued to sense something in the air, the sort of “gut feeling” or “intuition,” which can earn a reputation for bad political predictions.
So I took the easy way out: I said all signs point to a Conway victory, “but it just doesn’t feel like it.”
I’m beginning to have a similar feelings and suspicions about this race. Now Beshear vs. Bevin is a lot different than Bevin vs. Conway. Conway hated campaigning, and it showed; Bevin was surprisingly good at it and clearly enjoyed it. Bevin had just lost a bitter intra-party fight with the Kentucky GOP’s godfather, Mitch McConnell.
But Bevin adroitly attached himself to the Kim Davis controversy (she went to jail briefly for refusing to issue same-sex marriages) and, whether he or any of the rest knew it at the time, Bevin also benefitted from the growing resentment of the same voters who a year later made Donald Trump president.
If anything, Kentucky is even redder today than in 2015. Kentucky voters wouldn’t seem enthusiastic about a young Democrat who is on the wrong side politically of a couple of key issues in Kentucky, especially abortion. He’s the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, Bevin’s immediate predecessor, and many don’t like political dynasties. He has some ambitious plans but no proven way to fund them, especially working with a Republican controlled General Assembly.
Yet, he leads in the (mostly Democratic) polling we’ve seen. (And before you criticize, remember serious candidates don’t pay pollsters for bad information and, if Republicans had positive poll numbers of their own, they’d be leaking them to the press.)
Presumably, Beshear enjoys the wide support of teachers who loathe Bevin for attempted changes to their pension systems, but even more for incendiary and insulting comments the governor made about them.
Recently, I saw an exchange on social media between a known Republican and a known Democrat, during which the Republican pointed out what little influence teachers had on the 2018 elections. He was immediately answered by a third party who I know is both a teacher and heretofore a faithful Republican.
“Bevin wasn’t on the ballot last year,” she said.
That might be something Bevin should keep in mind. If they are organized and enthusiastic, in many counties teacher groups are large enough that they might organize a campaign like Democrats used to when they were an actual, functional statewide party.
And those polling numbers favoring Beshear? Take a look at last year’s race in the 6th congressional district where Democrat Amy McGrath ran nearly a perfect campaign and led in polling. That all changed when Trump visited Eastern Kentucky University. Bevin will campaign as a version of Trump and the economy if it doesn’t falter. I’d expect Trump to make at least two more trips to a state where he remains very popular even if the governor doesn’t.
The polls currently support Beshear, but recent election history, Republican organizational advantage and Trump all suggest Bevin will end up in the better spot. But will it be enough to overcome the teacher or the growing number of voices on the street which seem to support most of Bevin's policies but genuinely dislike the man personally? How will those people vote?
I can’t answer those questions. But it just feels like this election won’t go as expected or predicted regardless of who wins.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and now writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.