FRANKFORT — Matt Bevin’s landmark election Tuesday as the second Republican governor of Kentucky in 44 years stood on a four-legged stool:
Democrat Jack Conway’s decision as state attorney general not to appeal one of the rulings that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld to legalize same-sex marriage;
President Obama, who has been bad for the Democratic brand in socially conservative states, and especially in Kentucky, where his environmental policies have upset coal and agriculture interests;
Bevin’s outsider-businessman status and vigorous demeanor, which contrasted with Conway’s resume and personality and appealed to voters unhappy with politics at a time when outsiders lead the Republican presidential contest;
An apparent difference between Conway and Bevin supporters in turnout, driven mainly by the Republican’s organizing efforts among his Tea Party base and Christian conservatives upset with the marriage decisions and other social issues.
Conway limited paid, on-the-ground turnout efforts to Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky, which was “questionable,” said state Auditor Adam Edelen. His defeat was the biggest surprise of the night and made the election an almost complete debacle for Democrats, who had hoped he would challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul next year.
Democrats’ limited turnout effort also helps explain why Bevin won by 8.7 percentage points after most public and private polls showed Conway about 5 points ahead a week before the election.
You don’t get that big a shift from undecideds, most of whom don’t vote. There were pre-election indications that Bevin supporters were more committed; a Republican poll in the final week gave him a 2.7-point edge among voters who said they would definitely vote. Democratic pollster Fred Yang said his polls showed Conway leading among such voters, but narrowly.
Conway told me, “There was obviously something bubbling under the surface we weren’t seeing.”
It was a largely organic, local-level movement of religiously motivated conservatives, sparked by the jailing of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses on grounds of religious freedom.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning released Davis after five days, but her cause stuck in the craws of many voters, as indicated by the last week crowd of 300 in Owensboro at one of three religious freedom rallies sponsored by the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky. Bevin spoke at them; Conway was invited, but didn’t send a representative. He said he was unaware of the invitation.
In Owensboro, the local Republican chairman told Jim Mayse of the Messenger-Inquirer that turnout in several Democratic precincts was unusually low while it was unusually high in some Republican areas.
“They were motivated and energized by the social issues,” said Edelen, 40. “It was one of the more impressive things I’ve seen in 20 years of watching this.” He said it was “the only thing that would explain to me why the polling models were so wrong.”
Edelen said, and I agree, that conservative voters upset with the political system and the news media are less likely to submit to polling.
Conway’s constant but slim lead in public polls may have helped motivate his opponents, and his leader status may have made some Democrats complacent.
More important, he failed to generate much excitement among his base, a big problem if your on-the-ground turnout effort depends mainly on volunteers.
Conway’s decision to not appeal the initial ruling against the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage cost him the election, said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation. It was the right decision, but it was probably the single biggest factor in his defeat in an election where turnout was only 30 percent.
Conway told me that he didn’t think at the time that he was risking his candidacy “all that much,” and would make the same decision today. “I will be on the right side of history,” he said. “I don’t regret that at all.”
Cothran said marriage was a visceral issue that trumped the Democrats’ attack ads, and state Senate President Robert Stivers said Bevin’s dominance of social media also helped do that. So did Bevin’s closing slogan, “Vote your values, not your party.”
Bevin was also helped by the fact that his side had more and better ads in the final week; some emphasized his “Christian conservative” credentials. Some voters told me and my students that Democrats’ emphasis on attack ads turned them off.
Some wondered if Edelen made a mistake by airing an attack ad against state Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville, who scored the night’s big upset. Edelen said the ad didn’t run enough to have that sort of impact, and he felt he had to attack because Harmon was running too close. Harmon won by 4 points.
Despite his very good record as auditor, Edelen’ highest-ever name recognition was only 35 percent – one reason he didn’t challenge Conway in the gubernatorial primary – and he said that was trumped by the Republican wave, Bevin’s coattails and the organic, bottom-up organizing of “social conservatives and home-schoolers.”
Lexington talk-show host Lee Cruse said many Republicans told him they voted for Edelen, who told me, “I think I had the support of most of the chamber-of-commerce Republicans” – an “extraordinary” number of whom held fund-raisers for Conway.
Bevin’s distance from traditional Republican circles made observers question his ability to win, but it may have enhanced his outsider status, which was a big factor. “This was not a typical Republican or Democratic election,” Edelen said. “This was about the insiders and the outsiders.”
Obama’s role in the race was obvious from the ads and voter interviews, but a little-known factor was farm interests’ dislike of the president’s environmental policies, most notably EPA’s effort to redefine the Clean Water Act’s key term, “waters of the United States.”
Farmers, great beneficiaries of federal farm programs started mainly by Democrats, have been turning Republican for decades because of Democratic regulatory policies. About 20 years ago, one of my Tennessee uncles said, “I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but some of this stuff’s got to stop.”
Perhaps the water issue was to farmers as same-sex marriage was to religious conservatives. In both cases, they said, “Enough is enough.” In acting on that feeling, they largely completed Kentucky’s transformation into a Republican state.
The exceptions on election night were Democrats with high name recognition: Attorney General-elect Andy Beshear, whose 0.2-point win over state Sen. Whitey Westerfield can be attributed to the popularity of his father, Gov. Steve Beshear; and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose pummeling last year by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell made her a household word. She lucked out by drawing a weak opponent, Steve Knipper, and won by 2.3 points.
Now the battle shifts to the state House, the last legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats. House Speaker Greg Stumbo will have a hard time holding onto his 54-46 majority.
Stumbo alluded to religion’s impact on the election when he told Democrats on election night, “We can’t let them make people believe we are not godly people. … So you go home and you go to your church and you tell people, ‘I’m a Democrat, I’m a God-fearing Democrat, I’m a Democrat that believes in the principles of the Bible that become the principles of our party.’”
Stumbo’s distant cousin, Grady Stumbo, delivered similar lines in non-bombastic fashion when he was state Democratic chairman. That was more than 20 years ago. It has been a losing battle for them ever since, except when Republicans got too extreme. “You can always count on the Republicans to overplay their hand,” Edelen said. But that’s no strategy.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.