What do election surprises mean for Matt Bevin and Andy Beshear?

Published 6:53 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Guest columnist

Kentucky voters delivered two mild surprises in last week’s primaries for governor: Rocky Adkins ran a strong second to Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, and Robert Goforth ran a comparable second to Republican incumbent Matt Bevin. What does that mean for the fall?

Email newsletter signup

The performance of Adkins, the state House minority leader, has several threads that relate to the Beshear-Bevin contest.

First, Adkins proved to be a good campaigner who won over a broader range of Kentuckians than the ruralites who made up his base. He carried most counties in the Bluegrass Region, several of them more suburban than rural. Some of that may have been strategic voting by Democrats, thinking he was likeliest to oust Bevin; the best example of that was his 47% of the vote in Franklin County, the seat of government. But the fact that he was a credible alternative to so many is testimony to his appeal.

Second, Adkins showed there are still plenty of social conservatives interested in voting in statewide Democratic primaries, if they see a candidate they like. He didn’t talk about the litmus-test issue, abortion, unless he was asked about it, but many who cared about the issue knew where he stood, and it was clearly a driving factor for him.

Third, Adkins’ performance showed the relative weakness of Beshear, who was the front-runner from the start and ran a stand-pat campaign that tried to focus on Bevin, his chronic adversary. Some Adkins voters in Scott County told me they wanted “a new face” in statewide leadership though Beshear has been in office less than four years; they noted that his father, Steve Beshear, was governor for eight.

“His father was a good governor … but I think it’s just time for new blood,” said Debbie Gillispie, 66, of Georgetown.

Some will argue that Adkins gained votes due to the attacks on Beshear by former State Auditor Adam Edelen and his allied super PAC. It’s common in multi-opponent primaries for the attacker and the attacked to both suffer, but in this case, Adkins’ anti-abortion stand made him an unacceptable alternative to some voters, many of whom likely defaulted to Beshear. The attacks about his 2015 campaign contributions from drug companies didn’t seem to gain traction.

That seemed to be reflected in Jefferson County, where Edelen had a running mate and high hopes for a big margin, but Beshear beat him, 48% to 40%. (Edelen carried only his native Meade County and, by 10 votes, adjoining Breckinridge.) Farther west, the Beshear family’s roots in the western coalfield helped guaranteed its scion’s nomination.

In the Republican primary, Goforth, a state representative from Laurel County, won 31 counties and 39% of the vote, beating all public expectations. It was testimony to the hole Bevin has dug for himself with his combative approach to legislators, who are local opinion leaders, and his infamous remarks about teachers, many of whom are Republicans.

But Bevin’s 52.4% of the four-way vote isn’t comparable to the 50.1% then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher got in the primary of 2007, when a personnel scandal generated two strong Republican primary opponents and guaranteed his defeat by Steve Beshear that fall.

Bevin may be the least popular governor in his own state, according to a poll taken over the first three months of the year, but he has a lot going for him: A good economy in most of Kentucky; support from President Trump, who has majority approval in the state; plenty of money, from his own fortune and Republican givers around the nation; and, by his own account, the opponent he wanted.

Bevin got a gift the day before the election, when the nation’s leading abortion-rights group endorsed Beshear (who may have been hearing Adkins’ footsteps). At a time when abortion has become all the more a litmus test, there’s no stronger liberal label, and Bevin began the race Tuesday night by saying, “It’s going to be a very stark contrast, conservative versus liberal.” (For his part, Beshear said, “It’s not about right versus left, it’s about right versus wrong.”)

For Bevin, the big question is whether the ideological contrast and President Trump’s help — which began with automated phone calls on election eve, and a tweet on Election Day — will be enough to overcome the Republican antipathy to Bevin.