While much attention has focused on how much polling has shown Louisiana Senator David Vitter losing his bid for Governor less attention has been focused on the only truly competitive Governor’s race up for grabs on Tuesday, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Governor’s race can aptly be described as the lesser of two evils. Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democrat in the race, has worked hard to distance himself from the national party. He would be a shoe-in to lose except he is facing an equally flawed opponent in Republican Matt Bevin.
In case you have forgotten, Bevin made waves when he challenged Mitch McConnell in a primary last year. Bevin and McConnell never made up and as a result Bevin is struggling to get enough Republican voters to support his candidacy to win.
Polling has been pretty consistent in the race. Conway has held a narrow lead between 2 and 5 percent in recent polling. A Vox Populi (R) poll found the race tied but their sample was much different from prior polls.
The wildcard in the race (okay, the candidate wildcard) is Independent Drew Curtis. Curtis is admittedly the most liberal candidate in the race and even the polls showing Conway leading indicate Curtis is drawing more support from Conway than Bevin.
Conway is drawing about 20 percent of the Republican vote on average while Bevin is only getting about 15 percent of Democrats. Self-identifying Democrats still outnumber Republicans so it is crucial that Bevin unifies his party and steals some conservative Democrats from Conway.
Many analysts have the race picked as leaning towards Conway. I would tend to agree except that surveys show Conway getting about 15 percent of “strong Republicans.” I might be inclined to say these voters stay home due to their dislike of Bevin but going out and voting for Conway, I just don’t see it.
Geographically, the only swing regions of the state is Eastern Kentucky. Historically Democratic at both the state and federal level the region has moved rightward at the federal level. The Obama administration’s War on Coal has probably facilitated the shift. If Bevin can eat into Conway’s margins in the region it would leave Conway with only urban Kentucky to build a winning margin on.
Bevin should dominate Western Kentucky and Southern Kentucky. These counties are far more similar in culture and demographics to heavily Republican Tennessee than Kentucky. Their vote will not come close to outweighing urban Jefferson County though.
Bevin’s key to victory lies in running up margins in Western and Southern Kentucky but also strongly Republican Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in the Northern tip of the state. Outgoing Democrat Steve Beshear won a majority of these three counties voters in 2007 and 2011. Perhaps forecasting what Bevin needs to do, the lone GOP Governor for the state in the last 40 years, Ernie Fletcher, won all three counties by over 60 percent in 2003.
Conway certainly does appear to be in the driver’s seat. Polling has shown him consistently ahead and he has higher favorable ratings than Bevin. But Governor’s races are not popularity contests and it has become harder for state candidates to outrun political polarization.
His saving grace may be that he has portrayed himself as a conservative Democrat and is closer to the average voter on Medicaid and Medicare than Bevin.
Bevin’s chore is to unite his party and hope Curtis voters do not return to Conway. If they do, it should show in early returns and indicate a long night for the businessman.
Addendum: Also at stake are a number of high-profile constitutional offices including Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Agricultural Commissioner and State Auditor. The Lt. Governor position will probably go the route of the Governor’s race, Allison Grimes has locked up a second term as SofS, and the GOP has a lock on the Agricultural Commissioner position. The State Auditor position is neck and neck and probably will go the route of other higher profile constitutional office races.