Against The Grain

Matt Bevin’s Kentucky Win Is the End of an Era—and That Should Scare Democrats Everywhere

The Republican governor-elect ran an untraditional campaign. But the outsider’s commanding, surprising victory underscores why the old rules of politics don’t apply anymore.

Matt Bevin casts his ballot with his daughter on Election Day.
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Nov. 4, 2015, 1:54 p.m.

Former House Speak­er Tip O’Neill fam­ously said, “all polit­ics is loc­al.” After Re­pub­lic­an Matt Bev­in’s sur­pris­ingly con­vin­cing vic­tory to be­come Ken­tucky’s next gov­ernor, the max­im should be re­versed. All loc­al polit­ics are now na­tion­al. Bev­in, with help from the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, ef­fect­ively util­ized na­tion­al is­sues—gay mar­riage, Planned Par­ent­hood, fed­er­al en­ergy policy, Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law—to bludgeon Demo­crat Jack Con­way, who tried to dis­tance him­self from his party’s na­tion­al brand to no avail.

And the biggest drag of all for Con­way was Obama. The RGA un­leashed a last-week $1 mil­lion ad blitz con­nect­ing the Demo­crat­ic state at­tor­ney gen­er­al to Obama—a po­tent line of at­tack in a state where the pres­id­ent’s dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing is near 70 per­cent.

Just as the Ken­tucky gubernat­ori­al cam­paign car­ried na­tion­al over­tones, the res­ults from Tues­day night’s elec­tion carry na­tion­al les­sons. Here are four of the most sig­ni­fic­ant takeaways:

1. You can’t trust the polls any­more. Nearly every pub­lic poll dur­ing the Ken­tucky gov­ernor’s race, and even the private par­tis­an sur­veys we heard about, showed Con­way with a small, con­sist­ent ad­vant­age throughout the gen­er­al elec­tion. The fi­nal Bluegrass poll, con­duc­ted between Oct. 23-26 by the auto­mated poll­ster Sur­vey­USA, showed Con­way lead­ing Bev­in by five points, 45 per­cent to 40 per­cent. Bev­in ended up win­ning con­vin­cingly, 53-44. The poll showed Ken­tucky Demo­crats win­ning all but one of the statewide of­fices. In­stead, they came close to be­ing en­tirely shut out, with only state at­tor­ney gen­er­al can­did­ate Andy Be­s­hear and Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes barely pre­vail­ing.

Polling in Ken­tucky has had a par­tic­u­larly pre­cari­ous track re­cord lately. Just last year, pub­lic polling sug­ges­ted that Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell would face a much more com­pet­it­ive race against Grimes than he ac­tu­ally did. The Bluegrass poll showed Grimes lead­ing Mc­Con­nell in Septem­ber, and only trail­ing by five points in their fi­nal preelec­tion poll. The preelec­tion Real Clear Polit­ics polling av­er­age showed Mc­Con­nell lead­ing, but un­der the 50-per­cent mark con­sidered safe ter­rit­ory for a tar­geted in­cum­bent. Mc­Con­nell ended up win­ning with 56 per­cent of the vote, troun­cing Grimes by 16 points.  

This is not just a Ken­tucky phe­nomen­on. In the run-up to the 2014 midterms, many pun­dits fo­cused on track­ing the pleth­ora of Sen­ate polls missed the big pic­ture, and un­der­played how tox­ic the na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment was for Demo­crats last year. Don­ald Trump, one of the GOP front-run­ners, spends much of his speeches hyp­ing his polls—no mat­ter how meth­od­o­lo­gic­ally flawed they are. In­ter­na­tion­ally, Brit­ish and Is­raeli me­dia saw re­cent elec­tion res­ults for prime min­is­ter en­tirely at odds with the preelec­tion nar­rat­ive sug­ges­ted by the polls.

There are lots of the­or­ies why polling has been so prob­lem­at­ic lately. It’s in­creas­ingly hard to se­cure a rep­res­ent­at­ive sample of voters, with a near-ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans us­ing cell phones in­stead of land­lines. Fig­ur­ing out who will show up on Elec­tion Day—the likely voter mod­el—has be­come trick­i­er to cal­ib­rate. Many of the polls con­duc­ted are done on the cheap, with auto­mated-dial tech­no­logy or on­line pan­els. Many of these poll­sters’ tech­niques are still hotly dis­puted in the polling world, but they’re be­com­ing an ac­cep­ted part of the me­dia eco­sys­tem. (And in fair­ness to the polling up­starts, the track re­cord of the tra­di­tion­al poll­sters hasn’t been that good, either.)

What’s iron­ic is that cov­er­age of polit­ic­al cam­paigns is in­creas­ingly de­pend­ent on the polls, even as the polls them­selves are in­creas­ingly flawed. The ten­or of the pres­id­en­tial primary is be­ing dic­tated by the daily stream of horse race polling. Cred­ible can­did­ates are be­ing left off the main de­bate stage be­cause of minus­cule dif­fer­ences with some op­pon­ents in na­tion­al sur­veys. In Ken­tucky, Bev­in’s off­beat cam­paign strategy was widely mocked, with the flawed pub­lic polling provid­ing sup­port for the thes­is. If he was lead­ing in the polls throughout, per­haps the all-im­port­ant “nar­rat­ive” would have been dif­fer­ent.

The once-tire­some cliche, “The only poll that mat­ters is the one on Elec­tion Day,” ac­tu­ally is a worth­while ad­age this year. In the past, politi­cians used the line to dis­miss polling un­fa­vor­able to their side. But now, they can more cred­ibly dis­miss the horse race polling as fun­da­ment­ally flawed.

2. The GOP’s out­reach to Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters is con­sequen­tial—even if it isn’t provid­ing im­me­di­ate di­vidends. Bev­in wasn’t just a Re­pub­lic­an out­sider be­cause of his apolit­ic­al bio­graphy. His cam­paign also looked a lot dif­fer­ent than pre­vi­ous can­did­ates, and he traveled to parts of the state that Re­pub­lic­ans rarely ven­tured. At his vic­tory speech Tues­day night, he was ac­com­pan­ied by his nine chil­dren—four ad­op­ted from Ethiopia—and his Afric­an-Amer­ic­an run­ning mate Jenean Hamp­ton, who be­comes the first black statewide of­fice­hold­er in the state’s 223-year his­tory.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing events I at­ten­ded on the Ken­tucky cam­paign trail last week was at a west Louis­ville soup kit­chen, where Bev­in and Hamp­ton cam­paigned for school choice, ac­com­pan­ied by black pas­tors who ar­gued that Demo­crats in the state took the black com­munity for gran­ted. “Vote your val­ues, not your party!” Bev­in in­veighed. He noted that it was shame­ful that Demo­crats had nev­er elec­ted a minor­ity of­fice­hold­er in state his­tory, and un­der­scored his own com­mit­ment to di­versity. Bev­in’s mes­sage was amp­li­fied by Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, which aired two power­ful ads in the Louis­ville mar­ket ar­guing that Con­way was “for­cing kids in­to fail­ing schools” be­cause of his op­pos­i­tion to pub­lic funds go­ing to charter schools. An Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity spokes­man said their in­tern­al polling in Ken­tucky showed edu­ca­tion was the second most-im­port­ant is­sue for voters, be­hind jobs.

It’s re­mark­able that, giv­en how over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote is, many lead­ing Re­pub­lic­ans are con­fid­ent they can pick off some of that sup­port in the run-up to next year’s pres­id­en­tial race. Sen. Rand Paul launched his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign by un­der­scor­ing how he was a dif­fer­ent type of Re­pub­lic­an, com­plete with ag­gress­ive out­reach at his­tor­ic­ally black uni­versit­ies. The cur­rent polling lead­er for the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion is neurosur­geon Ben Car­son, the only Afric­an-Amer­ic­an can­did­ate in the 15-per­son field. South Car­o­lina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, one of only two black U.S. sen­at­ors, is emer­ging as a polit­ic­al king­maker in the pivotal pres­id­en­tial battle­ground. Just last year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rau­ner spent the fi­nal week of the cam­paign on Chica­go’s South Side, try­ing to pick off dis­af­fected black voters. Bev­in’s out­reach is only the latest from con­ser­vat­ives hop­ing to break the Demo­crats’ strangle­hold on their core con­stitu­ency.

It’s not clear wheth­er Bev­in made any not­able in­roads with black voters. He car­ried 39 per­cent of the vote in Jef­fer­son County (Louis­ville), around the same level of sup­port as pre­vi­ous Re­pub­lic­an vic­tors. But even if Bev­in’s out­reach didn’t make much of a dif­fer­ence in the out­come, his vic­tory shows that cam­paign­ing bey­ond tra­di­tion­al GOP com­munit­ies can pay di­vidends. If Bev­in can de­liv­er on his prom­ise to ex­pand charter schools in Louis­ville and im­prove edu­ca­tion­al out­comes for minor­it­ies, it would be a power­ful ar­gu­ment for Re­pub­lic­ans to use in oth­er heav­ily Demo­crat­ic com­munit­ies go­ing for­ward.  

3. Obama­care is the gift that keeps on giv­ing—for Re­pub­lic­ans. Be­fore the elec­tion, Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Be­s­hear con­fid­ently pre­dicted to The Wash­ing­ton Post that Demo­crats would “pound Re­pub­lic­ans in­to the dust” by mak­ing the case for the pres­id­ent’s health care law, ex­pect­ing to cite a Con­way vic­tory as proof of its pop­ular­ity. Be­s­hear used an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to ex­pand Medi­caid in the state and cre­ate a state-run ex­change. His ac­tions sharply re­duced the num­ber of un­in­sured Ken­tucki­ans, but the is­sue of health care re­mained a ma­jor di­vid­ing line between the two gubernat­ori­al can­did­ates. Con­way sup­por­ted the Medi­caid ex­pan­sion; Bev­in ini­tially said he’d re­verse the ex­pan­sion, but back­tracked in the gen­er­al elec­tion, say­ing he’d nar­row the num­ber of people eli­gible for the en­ti­tle­ment. Bev­in also pledged to dis­mantle the state ex­change, known in Ken­tucky as Kynect.

If any­thing, Bev­in’s clear vic­tory will only em­bolden Re­pub­lic­ans to con­tin­ue at­tack­ing Obama’s health care law as part of its mes­saging for the pres­id­en­tial race. The is­sue was the driv­ing force be­hind the GOP’s takeover of the House in 2010, and was the lead­ing is­sue that Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans ad­vert­ised on in win­ning back the up­per cham­ber in 2014. If the law was an ef­fect­ive cudgel against Demo­crats in Ken­tucky—where the law es­caped some of the en­roll­ment pit­falls that sent some state pro­jects in­to a tailspin—they’re likely to con­tin­ue to find suc­cess with it on a na­tion­al stage.

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans will also be watch­ing closely to see how ag­gress­ively a Gov. Bev­in at­tempts to roll back the law. Re­pub­lic­ans know that it’s a lot easi­er to cam­paign against the pres­id­ent’s health care law than to ac­tu­ally roll back be­ne­fits that people have re­ceived. Bev­in will be an early test case over the polit­ic­al vi­ab­il­ity in ac­tu­ally re­pla­cing Obama­care with a con­ser­vat­ive al­tern­at­ive.

4. Rand Paul can breathe easi­er.  The Re­pub­lic­an wave in Ken­tucky Tues­day night was a cap­stone to the GOP’s near-total dom­in­ance of the South. Not only did Bev­in win the gov­ernor­ship, but Re­pub­lic­ans swept four of the six statewide of­fices—and came very close to de­feat­ing the gov­ernor’s son (Andy Be­s­hear, run­ning for state at­tor­ney gen­er­al) and Grimes (run­ning for sec­ret­ary of state). Re­pub­lic­ans are now look­ing to win back the Ken­tucky House, the only South­ern state le­gis­lat­ive cham­ber still un­der Demo­crat­ic con­trol.

One of the biggest losers Tues­day night was state Aud­it­or Adam Edelen, who had been mulling a chal­lenge to Rand Paul—if he won reelec­tion last night, as many ex­pec­ted. With Edelen’s loss, there is no ob­vi­ous Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger against Paul for the Sen­ate next year. That means Paul can con­tin­ue to fo­cus on his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and not feel as pres­sured to quickly pivot back to a Sen­ate cam­paign.  

Make no mis­take: Paul’s stand­ing in the state has suffered as a res­ult of his struggles in the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. But Ken­tucky now looks so solidly Re­pub­lic­an that Demo­crats would need something of a polit­ic­al mir­acle to un­seat any sit­ting GOP sen­at­or.

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