Democratic Fortunes Brightening In 2015 Governors’ Races

In two of the most conservative states in the country, Democrats are looking surprisingly competitive.

Democrat Jack Conway, pictured here during his unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign, holds an advantage in the Kentucky governor's race this year.
Jamie Rhodes AFP/Getty
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 30, 2015, 8 p.m.

If there’s a bright spot for Demo­crats in an oth­er­wise gloomy polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, look no fur­ther than the party’s sur­pris­ingly com­pet­it­ive for­tunes in two South­ern states that have been night­mares for them lately: Ken­tucky and Louisi­ana. Both states are hold­ing off-year gubernat­ori­al races in 2015, and in those con­tests, mod­er­ate Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates are run­ning well ahead of ex­pect­a­tions.

In Ken­tucky, Demo­crat­ic At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jack Con­way now holds a small, but clear ad­vant­age in the gov­ernor’s race des­pite be­ing slammed by out­side ads at­tack­ing him as a pawn of Pres­id­ent Obama. The Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation just pulled its ad­vert­ising on be­half of Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Matt Bev­in, even though pub­lic polls have shown the race to be com­pet­it­ive. But as Na­tion­al Journ­al has re­por­ted, Re­pub­lic­ans have grown pan­icked about the dis­or­gan­ized state of the Bev­in cam­paign, and Demo­crats are now out­spend­ing their GOP coun­ter­parts by a healthy mar­gin in the race. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who Bev­in un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged in last year’s Sen­ate primary, has all but ig­nored his home state’s gov­ernor’s race in fa­vor of try­ing to boost the GOP’s chances in win­ning back the state House.

In Louisi­ana, it’s GOP Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter who is sur­pris­ingly vul­ner­able, des­pite look­ing like the odds-on fa­vor­ite to be­come the state’s next gov­ernor throughout the sum­mer. Between term-lim­ited Gov. Bobby Jin­dal’s low ap­prov­al rat­ings and the linger­ing im­pact of Vit­ter’s years-old pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal, voters ap­pear open to sup­port­ing the right type of Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate. A new poll, con­duc­ted by the Clarus Re­search Group, shows Vit­ter trail­ing all three of his lead­ing op­pon­ents, in­clud­ing Demo­crat John Bel Ed­wards, a mil­it­ary vet­er­an and former state le­gis­lat­or run­ning a cent­rist cam­paign in the all-party primary.   

Louisi­ana has a unique elect­or­al sys­tem in which both Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates run on the same Oc­to­ber primary bal­lot, with the two top fin­ish­ers head­ing in­to a Novem­ber run­off if no one wins over 50 per­cent of the vote. Ed­wards is heav­ily favored to win a spot in the ex­pec­ted run­off, while the Re­pub­lic­an vote is split between Vit­ter and two oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates (Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and former Lt. Gov. Scott An­gelle). If Vit­ter fin­ishes in the top two, the stage will be set for an in­triguing race that wasn’t on many pun­dits’ score­cards un­til re­cently.

Part of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s good for­tune is thanks to the caliber of GOP can­did­ates they’re up against. In Ken­tucky, they’re fa­cing Bev­in, whose per­son­al wealth al­lowed him to eke out a razor-thin primary vic­tory against two Re­pub­lic­an rivals. As the party’s nom­in­ee, he’s struggled to raise money and hasn’t spent much, either, re­ly­ing on the RGA to spend more than $3 mil­lion on his be­half. In re­sponse to his lackluster cam­paign, the RGA an­nounced this week it was go­ing to stop spend­ing money in the race—a clear warn­ing that the party wants Bev­in to get his act to­geth­er, and ex­pend some of his own for­tune. (On Wed­nes­day even­ing, in the wake of the in­tra­party cri­ti­cism, Bev­in an­nounced his cam­paign placed a “sev­en-fig­ure me­dia buy” to push his mes­sage.)

Since win­ning the nom­in­a­tion, Bev­in has struggled to ar­tic­u­late a pos­it­ive ar­gu­ment for his cam­paign, and he has got­ten side­tracked on in­con­sequen­tial is­sues. Last week, the nom­in­ee stopped by Ken­tucky Demo­crat­ic Party headquar­ters to be­rate a re­cep­tion­ist about an anti-Bev­in bill­board hanging on the in­ter­state. He’s flipped his po­s­i­tion on Medi­caid ex­pan­sion, soften­ing his op­pos­i­tion from the primary cam­paign. In a ra­dio de­bate held Wed­nes­day, Bev­in said he sup­por­ted Ben Car­son for pres­id­ent—even though Rand Paul was sched­uled to be cam­paign­ing for him over the week­end.

The nu­mer­ous blun­ders are badly hurt­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in a state where the party once held high hopes of win­ning back the gov­ernor­ship. Demo­crats badly lost a hotly con­tested Sen­ate race last year, and the state’s polit­ics have turned against the party—even in a gov­ernor’s race, where fed­er­al is­sues usu­ally aren’t as prom­in­ent. The RGA’s ads have fo­cused on Con­way’s ties to Obama, a theme that has con­sist­ently worked against Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in re­cent years.  

“The en­vir­on­ment is so good for Re­pub­lic­ans in Ken­tucky, this goes to show you how bad the Bev­in cam­paign has been. This race should be over, for Re­pub­lic­ans,” said a Ken­tucky-based Re­pub­lic­an strategist un­af­fili­ated with the cam­paign.

If Demo­crats make a run at the gov­ernor­ship in Louisi­ana, it will be even more stun­ning. The Louisi­ana gubernat­ori­al race looked like it was Vit­ter’s to lose, and at the least, a near-lock for Re­pub­lic­ans to hold. Vit­ter has been pre­par­ing for a gubernat­ori­al cam­paign for years, and has held a clear ad­vant­age thanks to his name iden­ti­fic­a­tion and fun­drais­ing abil­ity. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s land­slide loss in last year’s midterms only un­der­scored how en­dangered the Demo­crat­ic brand was in the Bay­ou State.

But a funny thing happened as the cam­paign de­veloped. Jin­dal’s dis­mal 32 per­cent fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing in Louisi­ana—not to men­tion his own long-shot bid for the pres­id­ency—have hurt the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s im­age back home, and dam­aged Vit­ter. (It’s an iron­ic de­vel­op­ment, giv­en the frosty re­la­tion­ship between the two Re­pub­lic­ans.) Ed­wards is cap­it­al­iz­ing on that dy­nam­ic by run­ning as the anti-Jin­dal, re­mind­ing voters he was a thorn in the gov­ernor’s side as a state le­gis­lat­ive lead­er. Vit­ter’s pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal has also ree­m­erged as an is­sue in the cam­paign, with sev­er­al out­side groups spend­ing money on the top­ic. Dardenne, his lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an rival, has pro­claimed him­self “scan­dal-free” in a re­cent cam­paign ad and has drawn an eth­ic­al con­trast in cam­paign for­ums.

Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve Ed­wards’s num­bers will drop if he makes it in­to the run­off, since min­im­al neg­at­ive ad­vert­ising has been dir­ec­ted his way. But with many core Demo­crat­ic voters also un­fa­mil­i­ar with Ed­wards, it’s pos­sible he still has room to grow. Demo­crats are down­play­ing ex­pect­a­tions in Louisi­ana, but are fully aware of polling in­dic­at­ing this could be the sleep­er race of the year.

The oth­er im­port­ant takeaway from these two gubernat­ori­al races is that to suc­ceed, red-state Demo­crats re­cog­nize they need to ag­gress­ively dis­tance them­selves from the na­tion­al party. Ed­wards touts his pro-gun, an­ti­abor­tion re­cord and rarely men­tions his par­tis­an af­fil­i­ation. Con­way em­phas­izes his sup­port for the state’s coal pro­du­cers, and has pledged to fight Obama’s en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions tar­get­ing the in­dustry.  

If they pre­vail, it would demon­strate that Demo­crats aren’t yet ex­tinct in the South, at least at the state cam­paign level. To be sure, Re­pub­lic­an self-de­struct­ive­ness has handed them sur­pris­ing op­por­tun­it­ies. But the races also show that with a more mod­er­ate mes­sage, Demo­crats could find them­selves with op­por­tun­it­ies bey­ond the coun­try’s most lib­er­al pre­cincts.

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