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)

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.