Matt Bevin may have failed miserably at challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, but he could become Kentucky’s next governor this fall. Bevin won by a razor thin margin in the May 19 primary against Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. He now faces Kentucky Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who was handily beaten by Rand Paul in 2010 Senate race, in the general. Nevertheless, President Obama is still widely unpopular in the Bluegrass State, which seems poised to take one more jab at him before it catches up with the rest of the country in directing their admiration or ire towards Hillary Clinton (via National Journal):
[I]n Kentucky, where voters will pick a governor in November, the anti-Obama strategy is getting one more run on center stage.
The Republican Governors Association already has released its second TV ad this year connecting Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, with Obama. And if the subject seems repetitive to voters who have seen it for years, there's a simple reason: It works. Republicans won 24 of 36 governor's races in 2014 using the same attack lines, and Obama is still hugely unpopular in Kentucky, where Sen. Mitch McConnell used the tactic to great effect last year, too; the president's approval rating has remained stuck at around 33 percent.
And while the Republican nominee, Matt Bevin, entered this year loaded with baggage from his 2014 primary loss to McConnell, it looks increasingly likely that Bevin could ride one last anti-Obama campaign to victory in November before the president leaves office.
In a debate between the two candidates last Thursday, Bevin focused his attacks on Conway's support for Obamacare, Medicaid expansion, and Kentucky's state health exchange, Kynect, as well as Conway's choice not to defend the state's gay-marriage ban in court—issues with easy connections to Obama and national Democrats.
Conway's main challenge is overcoming those issues. Conway's decision last year not to defend the state's ban on gay marriage as attorney general puts him on the side of the courts and national public opinion—but the headlines would only remind Kentucky voters that he doesn't share their views. Most Kentuckians still oppose same-sex marriage, and after June's Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationally, some county clerks still refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Yet, Conway has a slight edge over Bevin, leading 45/42 in the latest Bluegrass Poll. Yet, Democrats–and Conway’s campaign–acknowledge that this is going to be a tough election (via Courier-Journal):
"This is a close race and we're not taking anything for granted," Daniel Kemp, Conway's spokesman, said in a statement.
"But what this poll does show is that Jack Conway's message of creating good-paying jobs, investing in early childhood education and holding the line on taxes is resonating. Jack and Sannie (Overly, his running mate) look forward to working hard over the next three months, sharing their plan with Kentuckians in every corner of the commonwealth," Kemp said.
Bevin didn't question the results either.
"That's probably accurate," he said in an interview. "No one poll means anything. It's about where we would expect to be. This is a neck-and-neck race."
He noted that 38 percent of voters are Republicans and he polls above that number. "So numerically we should be a much bigger statistical underdog than that. ... I'm delighted by where we are and I'll continue to run like we're 10 points down like we always have from the time we entered the primary."
Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe said the poll results are a mixed bag for Conway.
"The good news is, he's ahead," Briscoe said. "The bad news is, he's not at 50 percent."
The poll was conducted between July 22 and 28. The sample size was made up of 685 likely voters, with three-fourths of the people polled being contacted by landline, while the other 28 percent were reached via mobile phone, questionnaires, and other devices, according to the Courier-Journal. A sample size of 600 is the minimum when polling statewide.
Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, which is featured in Roll Call, has moved tis races from tossup/Democratic tilt to pure tossup. He noted how Bevin could benefit from being in the public eye longer than Conway, who hasn’t been seen on television since his re-election campaign four years ago. Yet, there’s still a lot more campaign left, but the attacks Conway hurls at Bevin need to show results soon:
Losing the gubernatorial race still wouldn’t compare to the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats losing in the semifinal of the Final Four basketball tournament in April, but it would be a stinging defeat. Democrats have lost just two gubernatorial races since World War II, 1967 and 2003, when outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton left office in scandal.
If it happens again, Democrats are likely to blame Conway for being a weak candidate instead of drawing a broader conclusion about the president’s or the party’s standing. Conway’s detractors say he’s not as moderate as Beshear and that he sounds like he’s from East Louisville. Kentuckians haven’t elected a governor from Louisville since the mid-1950s, but Bevin is from New England and lives in Louisville as well.
Democrats might explain away a gubernatorial loss, but the races in Kentucky this year will have an impact on next year. The party will immediately look to one of November’s winners (or losers) to run for Senate in case GOP Sen. Rand Paul is unable to appear on the ballot. But the filing deadline for federal candidates is Jan. 26, before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and likely before it is clear whether Paul is a presidential contender or pretender.
Just like any off-year election, the winning party will trumpet the results as a sign of things to come while the losing party will dismiss it as an aberration. In the case of Kentucky, Democrats shouldn’t dismiss the weight of Obama’s job approval rating on their nominee, but next year should also feature the higher turnout the party was expecting.