By Perry Bacon
Gov. Matt Bevin is unpopular — a poll released in January by Morning Consult found that he ranked 45th among America’s 50 governors in terms of favorability (though, the five below him are no longer in office, so he’s actually the least-popular sitting governor in the country).
In that survey, 34 percent of Kentuckians said that they approved of the governor’s performance, compared with 51 percent who said they disapprove. A December Mason-Dixon poll also showed Bevin underwater politically (38 percent approval, 53 percent disapproval.)
And according to Mason-Dixon, he was trailing in head-to-head matchups against both Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, two of the leading Democratic candidates for governor.
But I would argue Bevin is still the favorite to win this race in November. Why? I spend a lot of time studying elections data and trends (I’m a political writer for the website FiveThirtyEight), and what I’ve learned is that it’s important to look at what are known as the fundamentals in a particular race. By fundamentals, I’m referring to factors beyond the head-to-head polls in a campaign, so things like the partisanship of a state or how the economy is doing.
In Kentucky in 2019, the fundamentals are good for Bevin. The state’s electorate voted overwhelmingly for the GOP in 2016 — Donald Trump won by 30 percentage points and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul won re-election by 15 percentage points.
The 2018 “blue wave” nationally barely hit Kentucky — Democrats gained a net of just two seats in the state House, didn’t win any additional U.S. House seats, and actually lost one in the state Senate. Kentucky is just a Republican state right now — and that makes hard for a Democrat to win here, no matter who the candidates are.
Also, political science research has generally found that incumbent candidates do better than non-incumbents.
So Bevin may be unpopular now. But if he spends the next few months campaigning around the state and running commercials emphasizing his conservative record and the more liberal stances of whichever Democrat wins the party’s nomination, I would expect his popularity to increase.
Also, if this is a close race in September or October, Vice President Mike Pence or President Trump could come here to campaign for Bevin. The president is fairly popular in the state (46 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable, according to Mason-Dixon). If Trump argues a vote for Bevin is really a vote to defend the president, that is likely to be a compelling argument to the 63 percent of Kentucky voters who backed Trump in 2016.
But I don’t think Bevin is an overwhelming favorite — and he could certainly lose. Why? First of all, while Americans usually vote along party lines at the federal level, they are more willing to vote for the other party in state races.
In the U.S. Senate, 89 of the 100 senators are from the same party that voted for their state for president. But 11 of the 50 governors are not from the party that their state backed for president. Some successful gubernatorial candidates, like Larry Hogan, the Republican in fairly blue Maryland, have been very skilled at portraying themselves as kind of non-ideological figures. Others, like Laura Kelly, a Democrat who was elected in conservative Kansas in November, ran against unpopular opponents who divided the dominant party in their states.
So here in Kentucky, you could imagine that some voters who might have backed Trump in 2016 disagree with how Bevin has handled the pensions issue or disparaged teachers. Those voters could decide either to vote for one of the Democratic candidates or not vote at all, which would also help the Democrats.
Second, off-year elections tend to have fairly low turnout. Bevin won 52 percent of the vote in his first gubernatorial run, about 511,000 total votes.
In 2016, Trump received 1.2 million votes. Hillary Clinton won 629,000, so more Kentuckians have voted for Clinton than Bevin.
If Democratic voters are extra-motivated against Bevin and Republicans are lukewarm about him, that’s a path to victory for Democrats. But it’s a complicated one — there are about 571,000 more Trump voters than Clinton voters in Kentucky, and Trump could personally come to this state in the fall to boost turnout among his base.
Third, there was a kind of blue wave in Kentucky in 2018 — and maybe it crests in 2019. Robert Kahne of Forward Kentucky calculated that Democrats won about 46 percent of the total votes in races for the state House of Representatives in 2018, up from 40 percent in 2016. (So Republicans won 60 percent of the total statehouse vote in 2016, 54 percent in 2018).
But this didn’t translate to a lot of seat gains for Democrats. Why not? Well, Democrats are losing ground in most counties in the state, but winning by bigger margins in the state’s population centers, Fayette and Jefferson counties.
Nationally, Trump and his political style seem to exacerbate the urban-rural divide, and that appears to be happening in Kentucky as well. So if Louisville and Lexington voters keep shifting left, that could lift the Democrats to victory, with anti-Trump voters turning out against Bevin in part to punish a president they hate. Ideally, for Democrats, turnout is high in the urban areas but not as much in the rural ones.
You will notice I’ve largely left out scenarios assuming that the political styles or personas of Adam Edelen (the third of the top tier Democratic candidates) Adkins or Beshear will shift large numbers of GOP voters to Democrats or inspire huge Democratic turnout. I’m not saying that won’t happen, we just don’t have a lot of data or history to use in projecting the effects of those individual candidates on the race.
My bottom line: Kentucky, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, will hold gubernatorial elections this year, and in all three, I would be surprised if Democrats won. All are very conservative states. That said, I will be watching the race here in Kentucky very closely, and my sense is that people around the country will as well, in part because Bevin has a fairly similar political style to the man in the Oval Office.
Perry Bacon is a national political writer who is based in Louisville. You can contact him at [email protected].