Published 12:10 PM EST Nov 8, 2019
What seemed like Andy Beshear’s unspoken campaign theme — “I’m not Matt Bevin” — turned out to be sufficient after all, contrary to opinions expressed in this space more than once.
The Democratic attorney general ran a solid, steady campaign that gave voters little to fear — contrary to the alarmist, abusive rhetoric of the governor, which only confirmed the image voters had of him: mean and nasty.
To many Kentuckians, their governor is the personification of a state that gets more than its share of bad national attention. They don’t want their chief magistrate to be mean and nasty, and most of them made up their minds long ago about Matthew Griswold Bevin. Once voters make up their minds about a politician, they’re unlikely to change.
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President Trump is mean and nasty, too, but unlike Bevin he knows how to make it entertaining. The conventional wisdom about Tuesday’s election was that Trump would re-elect the governor with a Monday night rally in Lexington. But in his stream-of-consciousness way, he spoke revealingly about Bevin: “Now, he is difficult, I have to say, you know — maybe it’ll cost him the election, but it’s OK — here, look: He’s such a pain. When he needs something for Kentucky... he’s such a pain in the a**, but that’s what you want.”
It’s not what most voters wanted, including many Republicans. Bevin was the only GOP candidate to lose. In the unofficial returns, he got 151,322 fewer votes than Allison Ball, who was reelected state treasurer; 118,544 fewer than political novice and Mitch McConnell protégé Daniel Cameron, the new attorney general; and 116,583 fewer than Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Even largely unknown Michael Adams, who defeated former Miss America Heather French Henry for secretary of state, got 41,887 more votes than the incumbent governor. A lot of voters who would have otherwise voted straight Republican went out of their way to repudiate Bevin.
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And still he came close: 5,189 votes, pending a recanvass — and a possible recount, for which he would have to pay, or even an election contest before the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Bevin has made unsupported claims about absentee ballots that shouldn’t have counted, and voters being turned away at the polls, but no one else — nobody — has come forward with any corroboration.
Bevin seems to be laying the ground for some sort of action that would put a cloud over Beshear’s Dec. 10 inauguration, but common-sense Republicans like state Reps. Jason Nemes of Louisville and Daniel Elliott of Danville have essentially said he needs to put up or shut up. And others have rightly said there’s little or no chance of invalidating the result.
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Beshear’s margin is spookily close to the 5,169 votes by which Republican Mitch McConnell unseated Democratic U.S. Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston in 1984. That didn’t go to a recount, and this one shouldn’t either.
Other than a rebuke of Bevin, what was the import of the election? National commentary said it embarrassed Trump, often ignoring the fundamental fact that it was almost entirely about Bevin. His latest job-approval rating — 45% approve, 48% disapprove — was close to the result of the election, indicating that it was, in fact, a referendum on him.
That being said, the results were to some degree a reflection of the national trend of better-educated, higher-income suburban voters peeling away from Trump and the party he has remade in his image. That showed in the staggering margins Beshear rolled up in Louisville and Lexington and his capture of counties that usually vote GOP.
There were local factors, too. Bevin’s endorsement of tolls for a new bridge to Cincinnati probably cost him Kenton County (Covington), which he lost by 1.1 percentage points; and his mistreatment of Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who lives in Warren County (Bowling Green), which he lost by 3.1. And local Republican officials told me his campaign was short on good, local leadership. Many things could have meant 5,189 votes.
The biggest surprise was turnout: 42%, well above any public prediction. Conventional wisdom was that it would be around 30%, as in 2015, because neither candidate was well-liked. But voting against is a stronger motive than voting for, and Bevin wasn’t the only candidate to be rebuked — in the attorney general race, voters ended Democrat Greg Stumbo’s 40-year political career.
But here’s the big reason: At the polls in Midway, I asked precinct officer Helen Rentch why the turnout was so high. She answered with one wise word, “competition.” The Democrats mounted their best voter-ID, persuasion and turnout effort ever, driven mainly by teachers and labor-union members out for revenge against Bevin, and Trump surely spurred many of his fans to the polls. And his visit may have also given Democrats another dose of determination.
But in the end, Bevin beat himself.
The governor likes to lecture and give unsolicited advice, but sometimes doesn’t take his own counsel. When I incautiously called him “an arrogant jerk” in an interview with an out-of-state columnist in the summer of 2015, at our next encounter I told him I shouldn’t have said that because I have sometimes been an arrogant jerk, too. He didn’t take my mea culpa in the spirit it was offered; his main reply was, “Words matter.”
Yes, they do.
Al Cross, a former Courier Journal political writer, is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him on Twitter @ruralj.