Democrat Andy Beshear declared victory over GOP Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday in a bitter Kentucky governor’s race that may rejuvenate the Democratic Party and leave Republicans lamenting another lost opportunity to cement their hold on the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, declared Beshear the winner during an interview on CNN, and Beshear claimed victory shortly thereafter.
The Associated Press said the race was too close to call as Beshear led Bevin by less than a point, 49.2% to 48.8%, with nearly all votes counted. Bevin did not immediately concede defeat, suggesting the result could still be contested.
In a speech to supporters, Bevin said “there have been more than a few irregularities” and that “they have been substantiated,” though he did not specify what the irregularities were. No irregularities have been identified publicly by state election officials or by local media outlets.
For Republicans, and Bevin in particular, the loss is a stunning rebuke to a party that thought it had laid Democrats to rest in 2015 ― when Bevin sailed to an easy victory ― and 2016, when the GOP won its first state legislative majority in Kentucky since 1920. Instead, the victory for Beshear, who served the last four years as the state’s attorney general, sent a signal that Kentucky Democrats, while damaged, aren’t dead yet.
The win, which could have major implications for voting rights, health care access and public education in Kentucky, continued an impressive run of results for Democrats in gubernatorial contests: Dating back to 1971, they’ve now won 11 of the last 13 such races in Kentucky, and have rebounded from both losses to retake the governor’s mansion just four years later.
That they were able to reclaim Kentucky’s top office in 2019 is due primarily to Bevin, whose abrasive, bullying political style and angry spats with teachers, state workers, journalists, judges, political opponents and members of his own party alike helped make him one of the least popular governors in the nation heading into the election.
It’s a style a majority of Kentuckians are willing to embrace on the national stage ― President Donald Trump remains popular there ― but found troubling on the state level. Even a last-minute visit from Trump, who campaigned for Bevin in Lexington on Monday, and a push from Vice President Mike Pence weren’t enough to save Bevin from himself.
After squeaking out a win in a four-way primary four years ago, Bevin sailed to victory in 2015 after a campaign in which the former investment manager painted himself as an outsider willing to shake things up. And when the GOP won supermajorities in both legislative chambers a year later, Bevin and Republicans set about enacting a rabidly conservative agenda: Republicans passed, and Bevin signed, an anti-union “right-to-work” law and repealed the state’s prevailing wage law in 2017. They targeted abortion rights, attempting to “effectively outlaw” the practice in Kentucky.
Bevin also took the ax to the Affordable Care Act, ending Kentucky’s state-based health care exchange and attempting to gut Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which together had helped provide health coverage to more than 500,000 Kentuckians ― or about 1 of every 9 people in the state.
But it was Bevin’s battles with teachers that probably played the biggest role in dooming his candidacy.
In 2018, Republicans in the state legislature rammed through a series of changes to the state’s public pension system over the objections of teachers and state workers, who responded by forcing schools across Kentucky to close and swarming the state capitol for mass protests. The pension wasn’t the only issue at play: Teachers saw the changes and proposed cuts to school budgets as part of an all-out attack on public education from Bevin and the state GOP.
Even before the protests erupted, angry teachers from both parties had ramped up their engagement in state politics: A record number of educators filed to run in state legislative elections, and one ousted the No. 2 state House Republican in a primary last year.
Bevin’s response to the protests, during which he blamed teachers for a hypothetical child sexual assault (before later apologizing), further inflamed the situation and was indicative of an approach to politics that relied on shouting down the opposition with fiery rants and petty insults.
It’s a style he deployed repeatedly, against journalists who asked basic questions about his policies and even toward members of his own party ― including a GOP challenger who garnered nearly 40% of the vote against him in May’s primary. Though many Republican voters ultimately came home, Bevin’s popularity eroded within his own party enough to lead one GOP state lawmaker to endorse Beshear instead.
In a state where public school systems and the state government are often the largest employers in rural counties, educators’ continued activism and anger fostered “anti-Bevin fervor in places that are generally Republican,” University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss said before the election. The teachers, Voss added, also helped “keep the focus of the governor’s race on economic and lunch-pail issues, more so than usual.”
Beshear rode the wave, tapping Jacqueline Coleman, an assistant principal who participated in last year’s protests, as his running mate, and focusing his campaign on public education, health care and other economic issues.
In the weeks leading up to election night, Democrats around the state hailed Beshear for running one of the most organized campaigns in the party’s history — particularly when it came to its efforts to turn out voters.
Turnout was higher than expected across Kentucky, and Beshear crushed Bevin in Louisville and Lexington, running up massive margins in the state’s two true-blue cities. He carried several counties in the eastern Kentucky coalfields that were traditional Democratic strongholds but have trended away from the party in recent years, suggesting that his attempts to focus the race on health care, education and other economic issues had worked in his favor. And Beshear earned a surprising amount of support in some typically deep-red suburban counties where public education has been a key concern and some GOP voters said they supported Beshear instead.
Democrats were less successful in other statewide contests. Republican candidate Daniel Cameron easily defeated Democrat Greg Stumbo in the race to succeed Beshear as attorney general, wrestling that office away from Democrats for the first time in more than 70 years. Cameron will be the first Black attorney general and the first Black candidate to win a statewide race individually in Kentucky’s history. (Outgoing Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who is Black, won as Bevin’s running mate in 2015.)
Republican candidates swept races for secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner, and the GOP successfully defended two state legislative seats in special elections.
But even as those Republicans won comfortably on Tuesday, their margins of victory fell well short of Trump’s 30-point win in 2016.
Beshear will face large GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, and governing will be a challenge, given that Kentucky’s beleaguered public pension system is among the worst-funded in the country, and tax cuts Republicans enacted under Bevin ― both with and without his approval ― have further drained the state’s coffers of needed revenue.
Still, Beshear, who is pro-choice even if he doesn’t talk about it much, may be able to fend off GOP efforts to render abortion virtually illegal in Kentucky, and his ardent support of Obamacare could help prevent tens of thousands of Kentuckians from falling off the health care rolls in a state where the Affordable Care Act dropped the uninsured rate into single-digits. It also may put an end to fears in Louisville that its aggressive efforts to desegregate public schools are under threat from a governor hostile to the local school district and its unionized teaching force.
Beshear’s biggest and most immediate impact will likely be on voting rights: During his campaign, the governor-elect promised to restore voting rights to convicted felons across Kentucky ― an effort his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear (D), began in 2015 with an executive order that Bevin immediately reversed. Kentucky is one of just three states that permanently bans felons from voting, a practice that has left nearly 10% of the state’s adults ineligible to vote, and, along with other restrictive policies, contributed to the disenfranchisement of more than 25% of Black adults, the highest rate in the country.
At minimum, Beshear’s win may give judges in Kentucky a break, after a four-year period in which courts blocked many of Bevin’s biggest changes ― to pensions, abortion laws and Obamacare ― on constitutional grounds.
The victory will likely inspire hope in Democrats nationally and in Kentucky that they have a chance to knock off GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020. But even in the wake of Bevin’s ouster, McConnell will enter that race as a heavy favorite, especially with Trump a virtual guarantee to win the state next year.
This story has been updated with additional election results.
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