Gubernatorial candidates Jack Conway and Matt Bevin gave conflicting accounts and statistics on Kentucky's job climate in last week's KET debate

Tuesday’s election in Kentucky was a historic triumph for the Republican Party and an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party, as Matt Bevin breezed to a shockingly comfortable victory over Jack Conway in the race for governor and Republicans were close to an unprecedented sweep of all down-ballot races for constitutional offices.

How did it all go down, and what does it mean going forward? Here are some of our takeaways.

Conway underperformed expectations… everywhere

Once the early results started coming in from Fayette and Jefferson counties, it became apparent that not only was Conway not going to win somewhat comfortably – as the Bluegrass Poll and many Democrats expected – but he was headed to an embarrassing defeat. Democratic insiders told IL before the election that they expected Conway to win by a margin of around 15,000 votes in Fayette and 50-55,000 in Jefferson, but with a lower turnout (33 and 35 percent) and percentage than expected, he only won by a margin of 10,441 and 37,791 votes. Turnout in these urban areas was only marginally higher than the rest of the state, which was 31 percent.

While Conway’s campaign had hoped to break even in eastern Kentucky with its “pro-coal” and anti-Obama/EPA messaging, they instead continued the Democratic trend in recent years of being trounced handily in most of the region, which only 10 years ago was reliably Democratic. Conway had even expected to compete in conservative northern Kentucky, but Bevin was able to win large victories in its most populous counties, such as Boone (8,424 vote margin) and Kenton (6,706).

Bevin counties (in red) far outnumbered Conway counties (in blue)
Bevin counties (in red) far outnumbered Conway counties (in blue)

While most of the television advertisements for Conway consisted of negative ads attacking Bevin for being late on his taxes and not releasing his tax returns, it seems voters didn’t particularly care — nor did this resemble anything that would excite his Democratic base to go out and vote. Though much of the media coverage of the race focused on Bevin backtracking on past statements or policy positions and his hostile relationship with reporters, this – and the lack of any newspapers endorsing him – appeared to have zero effect, as well.

While Kentucky Democrats have had great difficulty competing in statewide federal races over the past decade, many pointed to their past success in statewide races for constitutional offices – such as Gov. Steve Beshear’s landslide victories in 2007 and 2011 – as a sign that Kentucky voters stay true to their Democratic partisan roots in more localized races. Bevin’s large margin of victory – aided by millions of dollars worth of ads tying Conway to an unpopular Obama – shows that this conventional wisdom may now be a relic of the past and that Kentucky is now a deep-red state.

Even though only 16 percent of registered voters in Kentucky cast their vote for Bevin in the low-turnout election, it is clear the Kentucky Democratic Party is in crisis and needs a full scale re-examination if they don’t want to lose any remaining political power.

Down-ballot Democrats outperformed Conway, but still struggled

Outgoing Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen
Outgoing Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen

The biggest shocker of the night was Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen losing to Republican challenger Rep. Mike Harmon, who had raised and spent a minuscule amount of money on the race. This victory – over a respected auditor with bipartisan praise for his work in the office – more than any other showed the significant swing toward Republicans among voters, and took out a rising young Democratic star who was milling a challenge against Sen. Rand Paul next year.

But even in defeat, Edelen received 23,716 more votes than Conway, as did Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (66,656 votes) and attorney general candidate Andy Beshear (52,980), who both won narrow victories in races that polls suggested would be blowouts. These results showed that tens of thousands of voters chose these down-ballot Democrats, but for the governor’s race decided to go with Bevin or independent candidate Drew Curtis – again highlighting the weakness of Conway as a candidate. (Though Curtis did not play the role of a Nader-esque spoiler, as even had all his supporters chosen Conway instead, Conway still would have lost by a large margin.)

Even though both Grimes and Beshear eked out narrow victories, their struggle shows how a once-promising young Democratic bench of candidates now seems much less potent. And in the case of Beshear – the son of Gov. Beshear – this is also a sign that the successful governor’s legacy does not have the coattails people once thought it had. And Beshear’s greatest legacy – the creation of Kynect and the expansion of Medicaid that brought health insurance coverage to nearly half a million Kentuckians – now appears to be in jeopardy of being dismantled by governor-elect Bevin. Even though polls show Kentuckians overwhelmingly support keeping this expansion instead of repealing it, there was nary a Democratic ad on TV where Conway explained the issue and vowed to keep it — though many Republican Governors Association ads pointed out that Conway supported “Obamacare.”

Gov. Bevin’s changes likely to be felt immediately

Even before next year’s session of the Kentucky General Assembly convenes, many of Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive orders are now at risk of being immediately rescinded by Matt Bevin once is sworn in on Dec. 8.

Beshear’s executive orders at risk include prevailing wage on construction projects; a $10.10 per hour minimum wage for state employees and contractors; protection of state employees from discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and – most significantly – his creation of Kynect and the expansion of Medicaid to those up to 138 percent of the federal poverty rate. Bevin appears likely to rescind most of these, though he at times backtracked during his campaign on a pledge to do away with Medicaid expansion “on day one.”

The hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who have coverage through Medicaid due to this expansion will be watching Bevin closely to see whether their eligibility will be rescinded with the stroke of a pen – assuming that is legally possible, which is up for debate – or if he will attempt to push for this through the legislative process.

Democrats still have a firewall in the state House… for now

capitolWhile Bevin becoming governor is a major victory for Republicans and their policy agenda, the big remaining hurdle is the Democrats’ slim majority in the state House. Republicans have long called for so-called “right to work” legislation, tort reform, charter schools, abortion restrictions, fuller privatization of public pensions, and a more regressive consumption-based tax reform in the General Assembly – only to be stymied by Democrats in the House. Though Bevin will now have the bully pulpit of the governor’s mansion, his favored legislation still will face the hurdle of Democrats and House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

Or will he? A serious threat for Democrats over the next two months will be rural conservative House Democrats flipping to the Republican Party, seeing the writing on the wall of their electoral future by having a D next to their name in a region of voters trending solidly Republican. Another threat is Bevin appointing any of these Democratic House members to a position in his administration or a judgeship, which would come along with a hefty boost in their public pension and open up the seat for a Republican to win in a special election. Gov. Beshear tried the same strategy with Republican members of the Senate in order to flip the majority of that chamber, though ultimately failing in that task.

If this happens and the Republicans take over the House, the entire Republican policy agenda likely will pass by this spring. If not, Bevin and his party still have the opportunity to pick up enough seats in next year’s state House elections, delaying their long sought after wish list of policy goals until 2017. Until then, the House remains the Democrats’ only firewall.

Dems to the left, Dems to the right?

Following Tuesday night’s bloodbath, Sen. Ray Jones – the Democratic minority leader of the state Senate – blamed his party’s losses on Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, saying Kentucky Democrats have to further distance themselves from the party’s national leaders. Pressed on this by Rene Shaw of KET, Jones had difficulty differentiating local Democrats and Obama on policy positions outside of coal regulations, highlighting the challenge of how his colleagues could pull off this familiar strategy that has failed so badly in the past two statewide elections.

Other Democrats have taken the exact opposite lesson from this election, saying their candidates’ insistence on villainizing Obama over the past seven years has managed not only to suppress the vote of progressive Democrats, but made the party’s brand so toxic that no attempts by candidates to distance themselves for Obama – like Grimes in 2014 and Conway this year – can work.

This internal debate among Democrats will not be resolved anytime soon, but it will surely shape the direction of the party going forward.

Kim Davis?

There’s been much talk about whether Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ public fight against same-sex marriage doomed Conway’s chances – along with her robocalls for Bevin on the eve of the election.

While it will be debated in the coming weeks whether a social conservative Democratic revolt against Conway doomed his campaign, it should be noted that one of the few counties that Conway won was eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County.

Who is the leader of the Republican Party in Kentucky?

Sen. Mitch McConnell was once the unquestioned ruler of the Republican Party of Kentucky until upstart Rand Paul ousted McConnell’s hand-picked candidate Trey Grayson in the 2010 Senate primary. While Paul and McConnell mended fences in the following years and worked together in a mutually beneficial alliance of odd couples, the relationship with Bevin – whom McConnell mercilessly attacked and blew out in the 2014 Senate primary – will be harder to fully patch up. Bevin is independent and strong-willed, and Republicans will have to gauge what kind of strategy to enact going forward with their newfound power, which could cause ugly public rifts.

But rifts or not, there’s no doubt that it’s better than the alternative of Gov. Conway, and any challenges they face going forward pale in comparison to those of the fractured, bloody and beaten Kentucky Democratic Party, which is looking down the barrel of political irrelevance for years to come unless they right the ship quickly.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]