FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Just two years ago, Kentucky Democrats boasted a deep bench of three young stars who aligned to prove the party could still win in the conservative South with a message focused on the economy and jobs instead of abortion and gay marriage.
But Kentucky voters have now rejected all three, capped by a disastrous election for Democrats on Tuesday in which they lost four of the five statewide constitutional offices they held coming into the election, including the governor's office for just the second time since 1971.
"The degree to which the national party is out of step with mainstream Kentuckians has created an environment where it's extraordinarily difficult for a Democrat to win statewide," said state Auditor Adam Edelen, who lost his re-election bid to little known Republican state representative Mike Harmon.
Edelen's loss was particularly tough for Democrats, as he was seen as the party's likely candidate to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in 2016. But Edelen's loss, coupled with Democrat Jack Conway's loss to Republican Matt Bevin for governor and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes' 15-point drubbing to Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Senate race, leaves few obvious options for Democrats heading into the midterm elections.
"Make no mistake, folks, the rebuilding of the Democratic Party starts tomorrow," Grimes told subdued supporters in Frankfort, despite winning a second term as Kentucky's Secretary of State.
Bevin, an investment manager from Louisville, called his victory "the chance for a fresh start." He is the state's first governor from Louisville in a century, and his running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Jenean Hampton, will become the first black person to ever hold statewide elected office in Kentucky's 223-year history.
Bevin cast himself as an outsider, in both government and politics. The 48-year-old investment manager has never held public office. He was shunned by the state's Republican political establishment when he challenged McConnell in the 2014 Senate primary. He never took any meaningful steps to repair those relationships after the race, often deflecting advice from party officials, which likely affected his fundraising ability.
He relied more on the details of his personal story — his Christian faith and his four adopted children from Ethiopia — than his political policies.
"I just like his values," said Lisa Harris, a 46-year-old manufacturing worker in Georgetown who said she voted for Bevin. "I love the way he has adopted children. He was a serviceman and he's Christian and he doesn't care to tell that. I just really like his core value of family and home."
His election, Bevin said, is an opportunity to "change the tenor of what has become expected in the world of politics." His speech echoed his remarks at Kentucky's Fancy Farm political picnic earlier this year, where he refused to play along with the event's 100-year tradition of political heckling by not criticizing Conway and instead leading the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
"We are blessed with an incredible set of values the vast majority of Kentuckians hold," Bevin said in his victory speech. "While some will apologize, there is no reason that we must apologize for the core principles that make us an exceptional nation, that make us an exceptional state."
Despite his calls for unity, Bevin concluded his speech by leading the crowd in a chant of "Flip the House!" a reference to Kentucky's Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives. House Speaker Greg Stumbo gave a fiery speech to a quiet crowd in Frankfort following the election results, saying Republicans do not have a monopoly on religious values, adding: "Mary did not ride an elephant into Bethlehem that night."
"We can't let (Republicans) make people believe that we are not godly people," Stumbo said. "We can't (let Republicans) make them believe that only Christians are Republicans and Republicans therefore are entitled to hold office."
This is not the first time Republicans have handed Democrats decisive defeats in statewide elections. In 2003, Republicans won races for governor, secretary of state and agriculture commissioner, only to lose two of those offices four years later.
"You know we've taken some hard knocks tonight," said Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who could not seek re-election because of term limits. "But we've been here before and we always get up and come back and win."