With this year’s primary election just a month away, it seems unusually quiet in a year when the statewide constitutional offices are on the ballot.
The most important and most coveted of those is the governor’s office where four Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination on May 21 to take on incumbent Republican Matt Bevin in the fall. (Bevin has three primary challengers — state Rep. Robert Goforth, Ike Lawrence and William Woods, none of whom offers any real threat to Bevin.) House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, Attorney General Andy Beshear and former state Auditor Adam Edelen are running on the Democratic side. Geoff Young is also running.
I wrote in this space a couple of weeks ago that in spite of Bevin’s anemic favorability numbers, it has become very difficult for a Democrat to beat a Republican in a statewide race in Kentucky and Bevin was the likely safe bet to win re-election.
I haven’t changed my mind. But there are potential signs of a bigger Bevin backlash afoot than I realized.
Over the years that I’ve watched and reported on campaigns and elections, I learned that most of the time, if you’d paid close enough attention and listened to voters rather than candidates, you could pretty much predict the winner shortly before Election Day. However, that’s not been true in recent Kentucky elections.
I wasn’t surprised in 2014 that incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch Mc-Connell defeated Democratic state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. But there was a point in that campaign — in the spring when McConnell was fending off Bevin’s primary challenge — when I thought she had a chance. As the campaign extended into fall, I thought that chance was evaporating but I accepted polling which showed a relatively close race. Mc-Connell won by 14 points.
In 2015, the Republican nomination for governor seemed state Rep.
James Comer’s to lose. But as I followed the candidates around the state, it was clear Bevin was gaining the attention of voters. Some didn’t want to say publicly how they planned to vote, but I sensed some were angry and many of them were impressed with Bevin.
After Bevin beat Comer by 83 votes, some Republicans privately conceded defeat in the general election to Democrat Jack Conway.
Comer backers didn’t like Bevin; neither did a lot of McConnell’s troops. Conway led in the polls start to finish, but he was a reluctant campaigner and Bevin capitalized on the controversy surrounding Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk who made national headlines by refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Though it was an exceedingly low turnout, Bevin won easily. Perhaps that should’ve tipped us off about Donald Trump’s chances in 2016, but it didn’t. Supporters and opponents alike were stunned by his victory.
What is common to most of those examples is an anger and dissatisfaction among voters and their relative silence about it — until they show up and register it loudly on Election Day.
In all of those cited elections, the “late break” went Republicans’ way, and Kentucky, regardless of its (declining) Democratic registration advantage has become a Republican state. So I’d be surprised still if Bevin isn’t re-elected.
But there are some signs which should trouble Bevin. He was roundly booed at an appearance at Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, an area which voted overwhelmingly for Trump. More and more of my Republican acquaintances express displeasure with Bevin, his style and some of his controversial and often pugnacious public comments. He already had strained relationships with House Republicans but now seems to have alienated some Republican Senate leaders over his veto of a pension bill.
Recent history shows the blowback has hurt Democrats but there’s no guarantee it can’t hit Republicans. And it’s just getting harder and harder these days to know which way the wind blows.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and now writes a weekly column.
Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.