Kentucky Governor’s Race Defined by Candidates’ Flaws

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway is in the lead, but it’s impossible to discount Republican businessman Matt Bevin in a red-trending state.

Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway (right) responds to a question from the moderator as Republican Matt Bevin looks on during the 2015 Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate hosted by Centre College on Oct. 6.
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Nov. 2, 2015, 1:47 p.m.

Ken­tucky At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jack Con­way, a Demo­crat, heads in­to Tues­day’s gubernat­ori­al elec­tion with a small but sub­stant­ive lead over Re­pub­lic­an Matt Bev­in, after a race largely defined by Bev­in’s flaws as a can­did­ate. But the state’s in­creas­ingly con­ser­vat­ive lean, and Con­way’s in­ab­il­ity to shake con­nec­tions to na­tion­al Demo­crats, means that Tues­day’s elec­tion could yet go down to the wire des­pite Bev­in’s struggles.

Bev­in, an of­ten cha­ris­mat­ic but more of­ten con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness­man, has been out­raised, out­spent, and out­polled throughout the gov­ernor’s race. Yet thanks to forces bey­ond his or Con­way’s con­trol—in par­tic­u­lar, con­ser­vat­ive voters’ re­lent­less propensity to link loc­al Demo­crats to Pres­id­ent Obama around the coun­try—Bev­in is still with­in strik­ing dis­tance of a vic­tory, just as he was five months ago dur­ing Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­ans’ wild spring primary.

Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­ans have tra­di­tion­ally struggled in state-level races; the state has had Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors for 42 of the last 50 years. But with the state turn­ing more and more to­ward the GOP, the party had been look­ing for­ward to his year’s open race as a big op­por­tun­ity to win the gov­ernor­ship back. Bev­in’s sur­prise, last-minute entry in­to the race, and then his nar­row May primary win over two op­pon­ents with more es­tab­lish­ment sup­port but also more scan­dal, com­plic­ated that plan.

Bev­in has since struggled with fun­drais­ing, suffered from con­tinu­al skep­ti­cism from some with­in his party, and fought Demo­crat­ic char­ac­ter­iz­a­tions of him as un­trust­worthy and un­stable, giv­en his flip-flops on vari­ous is­sues and ar­gu­ment­at­ive nature.

Bev­in made head­lines more than a few times throughout this year’s race for off­beat reas­ons, none of which were aided by his poor re­la­tion­ships with some loc­al re­port­ers. Bev­in at one point showed up at the Ken­tucky Demo­crat­ic Party headquar­ters to de­mand the party take down a sign about him on the side of a high­way. He de­clined friendly over­tures from his former foe, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, in the fi­nal days of the race, and said dur­ing a ra­dio de­bate that he would sup­port re­tired neurosur­geon Ben Car­son in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies over home-state can­did­ate Rand Paul, who has act­ively cam­paigned for Bev­in.

Yet Kyle Robertson, who man­aged former Bev­in foe Hal Hein­er’s GOP primary cam­paign earli­er this year, said that pro­jec­ted low turnout and a gen­er­ic Re­pub­lic­an ad­vant­age could yet help Bev­in grind it out once more, aided by un­de­cided voters who could still swing Bev­in’s way.

“Ken­tucky voters want a Re­pub­lic­an, and they’re go­ing to come around and sup­port Matt Bev­in,” Robertson said.

Bev­in re­tains an anti­es­tab­lish­ment zeal car­ried over from his Sen­ate run against Mc­Con­nell, and he prides him­self on his status as an out­sider. In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Bev­in em­braced a com­par­is­on to Don­ald Trump.

“I don’t owe any­thing to any­body, and that’s a very good place to be in be­cause I have no fa­vors to pay back,” said Bev­in. “Part of what people ap­pre­ci­ate about [Trump] is the very same thing—he doesn’t owe any­thing to any­body.”

Con­way, mean­while, is seen as a steady if un­in­spir­ing ex­ten­sion of term-lim­ited Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Be­s­hear. But Con­way hasn’t gen­er­ated enough en­thu­si­asm to lock the race down, even as Be­s­hear’s ap­prov­al rat­ings re­main ro­bust.

“The gen­er­al feel­ing in the race is just—nobody cares,” said Kath­ryn Breiwa, who ran an out­side group earli­er this year for an­oth­er one of Bev­in’s May primary op­pon­ents, state Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mis­sion­er James Comer. Breiwa poin­ted to fig­ures in the latest auto­mated Bluegrass Poll show­ing more than a third of both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are dis­sat­is­fied with their choices in the race.

Re­pub­lic­ans have hammered Con­way with com­par­is­ons to Pres­id­ent Obama on all sorts of policy is­sues, as they have with most red-state Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates over the past few years. And Con­way is more lib­er­al than Be­s­hear on at least one is­sue: same-sex mar­riage, which was lit­ig­ated again this year in Ken­tucky thanks to con­tro­versy over county clerk Kim Dav­is and mar­riage li­censes. But Con­way also skews to the cen­ter on oth­er is­sues, in­clud­ing coal, and has sought to dis­tance him­self from his na­tion­al party.

One of Bev­in’s most con­tro­ver­sial and con­sequen­tial stances in the race con­cerns the fu­ture of health care in Ken­tucky. Bev­in is pledging to dis­mantle Kynect, the state’s suc­cess­ful health in­sur­ance ex­change, and re­peal Medi­caid ex­pan­sion as it cur­rently ex­ists in fa­vor of a more re­strict­ive ex­pan­sion plan. Bev­in’s sup­port for tak­ing apart Be­s­hear’s health care leg­acy and sup­port for right-to-work are two is­sues help­ing Con­way cobble to­geth­er tra­di­tion­al Demo­crat­ic sup­port in what re­mains a blue-col­lar state.

Con­way has for months at­tacked Bev­in over his shift­ing po­s­i­tions on health care in Ken­tucky—just an­oth­er ex­ample of how the cam­paign came to be all about what was wrong with both can­did­ates.

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