Kentucky voters delivered two mild surprises in Tuesday’s primaries for governor: Rocky Adkins ran a strong second to Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, and Robert Goforth ran a comparable second to Republican incumbent Matt Bevin. What does that mean for the fall?
The performance of Adkins, the state House minority leader, has several threads that relate to the Beshear-Bevin contest.
First, Adkins proved to be a good campaigner who won backing from a broader range of Kentuckians than the ruralites who made up his base. He carried most of the counties in the Bluegrass Region, several of them more suburban than rural. Some of that may have been strategic voting by Democrats, thinking he was their best bet to oust Bevin; the best example of that was his 47 percent of the vote in Franklin County, the seat of government. But the fact that he was a credible alternative to so many is testimony to his appeal.
Second, Adkins showed that there are still plenty of social conservatives interested in voting in statewide Democratic primaries if they see a candidate they like. He didn’t talk about the litmus-test issue, abortion, unless he was asked about it, but many who cared about the issue knew where he stood, and it was clearly a driving factor for him.
Third, Adkins’ performance showed the relative weakness of Beshear, who was the front-runner from the start and ran a stand-pat campaign that tried to focus on Bevin. Some Adkins voters in Scott County told me they wanted “a new face” in statewide leadership though Beshear has been in office less than four years; they noted that his father, Steve Beshear, was governor for eight.
Some will argue that Adkins became an alternative for voters due to the attacks on Beshear by former state auditor Adam Edelen and his allied super PAC. It’s common in multi-opponent primaries for the attacker to suffer blowback, but in this case Adkins’ anti-abortion stand made him unacceptable to some voters put off by the attacks, and many of them probably defaulted to Beshear; the attacks about his 2015 campaign contributions from drug companies didn’t seem to gain traction.
That was probably reflected in Jefferson County, where Edelen had a running mate and high hopes for a big margin, but Beshear beat him, 48 percent to 40 percent. (Edelen carried only his native Meade County and, by 10 votes, adjoining Breckinridge.) Farther west, the Beshear family’s roots in the Western Coalfield helped guarantee its scion’s nomination.
In the Republican primary, Goforth, a state representative from Laurel County, won 31 counties and 39 percent of the vote, beating all public expectations. It was testimony to the hole Bevin has dug for himself with his combative approach to legislators, who are local opinion leaders, and his infamous remarks about teachers, many of whom are Republicans.
But Bevin’s 52.4 percent of the four-way vote isn’t comparable to the 50.1 percent then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher got in the primary of 2007 when a personnel scandal generated two strong Republican primary opponents and guaranteed his defeat by Steve Beshear that fall.
Bevin may be the least popular governor in his own state, according to a poll taken over the first three months of the year, but he has a lot going for him: a good economy in most of Kentucky; support from President Trump, who has majority approval in the state; plenty of money, from his own fortune and Republican givers around the nation; and, by his own account, the opponent he wanted.
Bevin got a gift the day before the election when the nation’s leading abortion-rights group endorsed Beshear (who may have been hearing Adkins’ footsteps). At a time when abortion has become all the more a litmus test, there’s no stronger liberal label, and Bevin began the race Tuesday night by saying, “It’s going to be a very stark contrast, conservative versus liberal.” For his part, Beshear said, “It’s not about right versus left, it’s about right versus wrong.”
For Bevin, the big question is whether the ideological contrast and Trump’s help – which began with automated phone calls on election eve and a tweet on election day – will be enough to overcome the Republican antipathy to Bevin.
The governor could do a lot to help himself with legislators by having a simple, short and smooth special session on pensions, but teachers of both parties have been laying for him ever since he said their walkout to protest a pension bill resulted in child sexual assault and other perils. Teachers failed to “remember in November” in legislative elections last year, but Bevin wasn’t on the ballot. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
Bevin has dug himself such a hole that the Republican Governors Association is already buying TV commercials that attack the Beshears, just the first in a stream that may last until Election Day, Nov. 5. Surely anticipating that the Democratic group American Bridge started an online ad attacking Bevin.
Neither ad has much substance or addresses any of the big issues facing Kentucky, so they should be ignored. But it may be foolish to hope for much better, in a grudge match between a Republican governor and a Democratic family who have clashed on matters large and small ever since Bevin took office.
Not since the days of William S. Taylor and Gov. William Goebel, who was assassinated in 1900, have we seen a governor’s race in which the two protagonists so disliked each other.
Our political landscape will be scorched.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross' column