Republican Matt Bevin Wins Kentucky Governor’s Race

A year after challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a primary, the conservative businessman takes the top spot in state politics.

Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin casts his vote Tuesday in Louisville.
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Nov. 3, 2015, 7:41 p.m.

Tea-party-backed busi­ness­man Matt Bev­in com­pleted a stun­ning polit­ic­al comeback Tues­day, win­ning the Ken­tucky gov­ernor’s race after en­ter­ing the cam­paign at the very last mo­ment earli­er this year.

Bev­in led Demo­crat Jack Con­way, Ken­tucky’s two-term at­tor­ney gen­er­al, 52 per­cent to 44 per­cent when the As­so­ci­ated Press called the race just after 8 p.m. Con­way nev­er trailed in a pub­lic poll this sum­mer or fall, or dur­ing the run-up to Elec­tion Day, and Bev­in even trailed in his cam­paign’s own in­tern­al polling. But the Re­pub­lic­an kept the race close and Ken­tucky’s in­creas­ingly con­ser­vat­ive lean swept him home.

Bev­in’s vic­tory upends a dec­ades-long trend in Ken­tucky in which Demo­crats have seen suc­cess at the state level des­pite strug­gling in fed­er­al races. Bev­in leaned on so­cial is­sues, in­clud­ing Row­an County Clerk Kim Dav­is’s re­fus­al to is­sue same-sex mar­riage li­censes this sum­mer, to en­er­gize con­ser­vat­ive voters. Bev­in also cri­ti­cized Con­way for not de­fend­ing the state’s same-sex mar­riage ban in court as at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

And the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation spent mil­lions of dol­lars on ads ty­ing Con­way to Pres­id­ent Obama on coal, health care, and oth­er is­sues, a for­mula that the group rode to suc­cess in oth­er red-state races over the past five years.

In his vic­tory speech, Bev­in spoke in broad strokes about how peace­ful polit­ic­al dis­agree­ment re­flects “the strength and the beauty of Amer­ica” and thanked Con­way for run­ning. Bev­in re­peatedly ex­pressed the hope that Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans could come to­geth­er as “one Ken­tucky” after the elec­tion, while re­mind­ing the crowd, “At the risk of bring­ing us down, I do want us to re­mem­ber that the task be­fore us has only just be­gun.”

In an emo­tion­al con­ces­sion speech, Con­way said, “It wasn’t the res­ult that we had hoped for, but it is a res­ult that we re­spect.” Con­way said he wished Bev­in well in his call to con­cede. “It was a cor­di­al phone call,” the at­tor­ney gen­er­al con­tin­ued. “I told him that I re­mained pos­it­ive about mov­ing the state for­ward, and if he ever needed any as­sist­ance, this Demo­crat was at his dis­pos­al.”

This is the third high-pro­file race that Con­way has lost, fol­low­ing a 2002 con­gres­sion­al bid and a 2010 Sen­ate run against Rand Paul. Bev­in, mean­while, found re­demp­tion after at­tempt­ing to beat Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell in a 2014 primary—and los­ing badly. That race frayed his re­la­tion­ship with many Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­ans.

Then, Bev­in sur­prised ob­serv­ers by fil­ing to run for gov­ernor just be­fore the dead­line in 2015 and win­ning a close primary over two op­pon­ents who got bogged down in a last-minute scan­dal.

Not only does Bev­in’s win deny Demo­crats an­oth­er gov­ernor’s man­sion, it threatens the state’s health in­sur­ance setup post-Obama­care. Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Be­s­hear cre­ated a state health in­sur­ance ex­change and ex­pan­ded Medi­caid via ex­ec­ut­ive or­der, but Bev­in has pledged to roll back some of those pro­grams and their cov­er­age as gov­ernor—a po­ten­tial test of polit­ic­al con­sequences for Re­pub­lic­ans’ long-held de­sire to re­peal and re­place Obama­care.

Ken­tucky wastes no time trans­ition­ing between gov­ernors old and new. Bev­in will take of­fice Dec. 8.

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