“It could have a significant impact,” said Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political commentator who now directs the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. “In the governor’s race, Bevin could still win by getting religiously motivated voters to turn out on this issue. It’s been well-propounded within church sanctuaries and similar precincts in the state that Jack Conway didn’t stand up for marriage.”
As Davis reignites the issue by arguing that she should be able to keep her job and not grant marriage licenses to gay couples, Bevin is doing everything he can to lean into the debate. Bevin fired off a series of tweets Tuesday attacking Conway for not standing up for religious freedom, and he held a rare conference call with reporters later that day to vigorously defend Davis. Bevin reiterated his support for a plan that would absolve clerks from having their names appear on marriage licenses—a plan Conway said he could support.
Bevin has also accused Conway of costing the state money by opting not to defend the Kentucky’s gay marriage ban as attorney general, even though the legal fees Kentucky incurred came because Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear opted to move forward with the appeals process without Conway.
Beshear chastised Davis on Tuesday for not doing her job, and the governor said he wasn’t interested in making special accommodations for clerks like her, which would include spending state money on a special session to write a new law. But Conway has been more amenable than his Democratic counterpart, expressing openness to finding a “legislative solution” next year that “upholds the Supreme Court decision and allows county clerks some flexibility so we can all move forward.”
Yet overall, Conway has remained relatively quiet on same-sex marriage even as it has mushroomed this summer, hoping the issue blows over by the time the campaign really heats up in the fall.
In 2014, Conway passionately championed his choice not to defend what he viewed as Kentucky’s discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage—he even teared up on live television while announcing that decision. “Those tears will flow again on television, or surely online, and this could ultimately be the thing that tips the scales against him,” Cross said.
While the issue is unlikely to be the lone determining factor in a race between two very different candidates, in an off-year November election where low turnout is expected, keeping the same-sex marriage debate alive could help mobilize culturally conservative voters to Bevin's side.
One major question, however, will be whether Bevin has the financial resources to deliver his message on religious freedom, and his attacks on Conway over gay marriage, to the masses over the airwaves. Bevin has yet to air any TV ads since he won the May GOP primary, and it’s unclear how much money he has raised since that primary left him with almost nothing in the bank.
The outside groups that have backed Bevin on TV so far, the Republican Governors Association and Americans for Prosperity, have so far kept a narrow focus on Conway’s support for Obamacare. Conway’s support for same-sex marriage could be another way Bevin and the GOP tie him to national Democrats—but only if they can keep the issue alive throughout the fall.