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My Old Kentucky Home: Could Matt Bevin’s Soon Be the Governor’s Mansion?

These days, the Bluegrass State is looking a lot less blue at the federal level. In the last four presidential elections, the Democratic candidate only averaged 40.6% of the two-party vote, the party’s 10th-worst state in that time period. Four-term Sen. Wendell Ford (D) was the last Democrat to win a Senate race in Kentucky and he retired before the 1998 election. The last time the Democrats controlled a majority of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives was after the 1992 election, when they held four. Today, Rep. John Yarmuth (D, KY-3) is the state’s lone Democrat in Congress.

Yet things have been far rosier for Bluegrass Democrats at the state level. Exactly one Republican has held the governorship in the last 44 years: ex-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who lost to current Gov. Steve Beshear (D) in 2007 after one difficult, scandal-plagued term. Although the Republicans control the state senate, the Democrats surprised many observers by maintaining their hold on the state house in 2014 despite the pro-Republican environment that saw U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) easily defeat Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) that year.

The 2015 gubernatorial election will test whether Kentucky Democrats can continue to overcome their state’s sharp Republican lean at the federal level in an era that has seen an increasing tendency for voters to cast straight-ticket ballots, not only in one election, but also across election cycles. This development has resulted in a growing uniformity in state and federal-level voting preferences by states. That is, states that vote Republican for president increasingly back Republicans for statewide offices, and similarly for Democratic-leaning states.

Chart 1: Same-party uniformity for president and governor, 1996-2014

Note: Count based on the party that won the state in the most recent presidential election, and the party identification of the governor or, if there was a gubernatorial election in a state, the governor-elect after November of each year.

Source: Compiled from data provided by the National Governors Association

As Chart 1 shows, there’s been an increase in the number of states where the same party that won the state in the most recent presidential election also controls the governor’s office. This number increased in 2010 even when Republicans won a number of governorships in states that President Barack Obama had claimed in 2008, mainly because some red states replaced Democratic governors with Republicans (e.g., Kansas and Tennessee) while some blue states replaced Republican governors with Democrats (e.g., California and Connecticut). Though this trend dipped slightly in 2014 as the GOP won governorships in states such as Maryland and Massachusetts, the general pattern suggests that a non-uniform presidential-governor state like Kentucky may well be next in line to shift toward its presidential voting tendency.

With Beshear term-limited out of office this year, the open-seat race between businessman and 2014 Senate candidate Matt Bevin (R) and state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) will be the main statewide election of interest across the United States in the 2015 cycle. The other two gubernatorial contests this year, in Louisiana and Mississippi, are rated Safe Republican; the GOP will almost certainly retain control of the statehouses in Baton Rouge and Jackson (more below).

Given these trends, some recent developments in the race, and the struggles of Democrats in rural Appalachia, we are moving the Kentucky gubernatorial contest from Toss-up back to Leans Republican, where we had it earlier in the year.

Following Bevin’s very narrow win in the Republican primary in May, the Crystal Ball shifted the Kentucky race from Leans Republican to Toss-up. There were many reasons for this move: Bevin won an ugly four-way primary in part because the other two major candidates concentrated all their fire on each other. Bevin’s track record as a candidate prior to winning his party’s nomination also hadn’t been all that stellar. He lost badly to McConnell in the 2014 GOP Senate primary despite being promoted initially as a potentially serious threat to the then-minority leader. In light of Bevin’s attacks on McConnell last year and his refusal to endorse McConnell in the general election, there was uncertainty about McConnell’s interest in offering much assistance to the GOP nominee.

But despite the animosity between McConnell and Bevin, Politico reported in early June that Bevin was attempting to repair his relationship with McConnell. Bevin’s efforts toward détente may be working: McConnell recently said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader that his friends and allies “need to get behind Matt Bevin” and that “we need to let bygones be bygones.” McConnell intends to stump for Bevin at the premier Bluegrass political gathering, the Fancy Farm Picnic on Aug. 1. If the party is relatively unified behind Bevin, which McConnell’s network of allies and donors can help make happen, the Republican nominee’s chances of winning are much better.

Since the May primary, there has only been one general election poll: In late June, Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Bevin ahead of Conway 40%-38%, showing a pure toss-up race. Although more surveys are needed before we can say anything categorically, if the contest is relatively close, the state’s conservative inclination may provide the edge Bevin needs. After eight years of Democratic rule in Frankfort*, voters will probably be more open to a “change” message, which Bevin is better positioned to offer. Moreover, the national Democratic brand in Bluegrass Country is toxic. President Obama is wildly unpopular, and in recent federal elections Democratic candidates have struggled to win many votes outside of Jefferson County, home of Louisville, the state’s largest city and most Democratic area. This has been particularly true in Appalachia, where about one-fourth of Kentucky’s voters live, demonstrating the challenge Democrats face in winning statewide elections in Kentucky and other states in Appalachia.

As Table 1 shows, in 1996 Bill Clinton won 50.5% of the two-party vote statewide, 49.7% in the state’s Appalachian counties, and 50.8% in the rest of the state. Thus, the vote in Appalachia and the rest of the state was very similar. Fast forward to 2012 and the gap between the rest of the state and Appalachia has become yawning: Obama won 38.5% of the two-party vote in Kentucky, just 27.3% in the Appalachian counties, and 42.1% in the rest of the state (note that 25% of the votes cast in 2012 outside of Appalachia in Kentucky came from Jefferson County). Not only has the Democratic brand suffered across most of the state — Louisville being one of the few exceptions — it has crashed hard in Appalachia, a rural region that has largely rejected Obama and other federal Democrats in recent years.

Table 1: Two-party vote in selected presidential and statewide office elections, 1996-2014

Note: G: gubernatorial election; P: presidential election; S: U.S. Senate election. Some margins may not add up due to rounding.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

With all this said, Bevin is far from a sure thing. There are questions surrounding his ability to raise money, having mostly self-funded at this point. But there is little reason to think he won’t continue to throw his own cash into the race. Besides money, there are still hard feelings toward Bevin because of his post-primary role as a sore loser in 2014. Bevin also appears to be on the ideological fringe on social issues, and he has a track record for making mistakes, such as appearing at a cockfighting event during the GOP Senate primary. If this weren’t the Obama era, we would be inclined to leave the race as a Toss-up; at this point, we’re certainly not willing to go beyond a “leans” designation.

Yet the poison (D) next to Conway’s name may be enough to sink him in today’s political environment. Though Conway won reelection in 2011, he benefited from Beshear’s crushing reelection win. When Conway led the ticket in 2010 as the party’s Senate nominee against now-Sen. Rand Paul (R), Conway lost by 11 points. Granted, 2010 was an exceptionally good cycle for Republicans, and Conway managed to fare relatively similarly in Appalachia and in the rest of the state, winning 41.0% and 45.4%, respectively. But it remains to be seen if Conway can triumph at the top of the ticket despite the baggage loaded on his bandwagon by the national Democratic Party.

Bluegrass Democrats will want to keep the race local, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling created an opening for Bevin to connect Conway to national politics. In late June, Bevin attacked Conway over the attorney general’s decision to not defend Kentucky’s anti-gay marriage law. According to the American Values Atlas, Kentucky is tied with Arkansas and Alabama for the third-highest percentage of white evangelical Protestants in the country (39%), behind only West Virginia and Tennessee. More generally, Bevin will surely try to make Conway and Obama interchangeable names in his campaign ads.

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Updates on other 2015/2016 states

Speaking of red states where Democrats are trying to defend governorships, the 2016 picture in West Virginia has cleared up considerably since our last update. Rep. David McKinley (R, WV-1) and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) elected to run for reelection, leaving state Senate President Bill Cole (R) as the likely GOP nominee in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D). Jim Justice (D), a billionaire coal mine owner who saved the state’s beloved Greenbrier resort from bankruptcy, is the favorite for the Democratic nomination, but state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D) is also in the race. As in Kentucky, we see a small generic edge for the Republicans because of the state’s strong anti-Obama tilt.

Meanwhile, the situation in another red state with a term-limited Democratic governor, Missouri, is only getting murkier on the Republican side. State Attorney General Chris Koster (D) is a virtual lock to get the Democratic nomination to replace outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon (D). But the GOP primary is a mess. After the horrific suicide of state Auditor Tom Schweich (R) earlier this year, the field has gotten crowded: In addition to state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway (R), who was Schweich’s main competition for the nomination, there’s state Sen. Mike Parson (R); former state Rep. Randy Asbury (R); and recently-announced Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R). Also likely to run are former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (R) and 2012 Senate candidate John Brunner (R).

Readers may remember Kinder from his messy 2012 gubernatorial run, which he abandoned after embarrassing stories emerged about visits to strip clubs and his repayment to the state for hotel bills originally charged to taxpayers. Kinder narrowly won renomination and reelection to his third term as lieutenant governor in 2012, and then tried and failed to win the GOP nomination for a special election for an open U.S. House seat — party leaders instead selected now-Rep. Jason Smith (R, MO-8).
Still, Kinder might actually start as the primary favorite in this crowded field. Missouri is another state where the combination of a likely GOP victory in the presidential race and possible fatigue with Democrats after two gubernatorial terms should work in favor of the eventual GOP nominee. However, we have no idea whether the primary will produce a strong Republican candidate or a bitter muddled result. For now, we’re sticking with Toss-up.

Beyond Kentucky, West Virginia (and possibly Missouri) offers the Republicans their best pickup opportunities this cycle. As we mentioned earlier, the two other 2015 races, in Louisiana and Mississippi, should be easy Republican holds. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is seeking a second term in the Magnolia State, while the main drama in the Bayou State is whether a second Republican will advance to a likely runoff with Sen. David Vitter (R), the current polling leader. If Vitter faces state Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) in the post-November contest, Vitter will be as good as elected. But if Vitter has to face Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (R) or Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R), the race gets more interesting. Nonetheless, polling suggests a Vitter-Edwards runoff remains the likeliest outcome.

The best Democratic gubernatorial pickup opportunity in 2016 is North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is only a small favorite over state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) in what should be a very competitive contest. It will be fascinating to see whether there is a significant coattail effect from the top-of-the-ballot presidential contest.

Democrats have an outside shot in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence (R) had a rough few months after the state passed a law designed to protect religious liberty that was widely seen as anti-gay. The controversy probably will fade in importance over time, but it’s clear that Pence lacks the magic touch of his popular predecessor, former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who is now the president of Purdue University. Pence could have a primary challenge, but he’s probably more vulnerable in a general election, which could be a 2012 rematch with former state House Speaker John Gregg (D). Gregg must first win a primary against state Sen. Karen Tallian (D) and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz (D). We still think Pence is the likely winner next year but it wouldn’t shock us if this race ends up highly competitive, as it was in 2012. Pence only won by three points and ran well behind Mitt Romney in the state.

North Dakota could become a Democratic pickup possibility, especially if Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) runs. Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) has not announced whether he will seek another term.

The only action in nearly one-party Utah is on the Republican side, where Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is prepping to face wealthy board Chairman Johnathan Johnson (R) in a GOP primary.

The rest of the 2016 governorships are currently held by Democrats.

In Delaware, Democrats will attempt to win the governor’s mansion for a seventh consecutive time as term-limited Gov. Jack Markell (D) leaves the scene. The tragic passing of former state Attorney General Beau Biden (D), son of Vice President Joe Biden (D), put the race on hold; Beau Biden was in line to be the Democratic nominee. As it stands now, Rep. John Carney (D, At-Large) is probably the favorite — he lost a very close primary to Markell in 2008 — but others, such as New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon (D), could also run. New Castle County, which contains Wilmington and is one of just three Delaware counties, cast about three-fifths of all of the state’s votes in the last gubernatorial race. The Republican nominee appears likely to be state Sen. Colin Bonini (R). One would expect the eventual Democratic nominee to be a strong favorite in a presidential year.

Up the coast in New Hampshire, everyone is waiting on Gov. Maggie Hassan’s (D) decision on whether she will run for reelection or challenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R). Hassan wanted to decide after the state’s budget was resolved, but that battle now appears likely to drag on for months. If Hassan runs for reelection, she’s the favorite; if she doesn’t, the race is a toss-up. There’s not much else to say at the moment.

New Hampshire is one of just two states that elect their governors every two years as opposed to every four — the other is the Granite State’s neighbor to the west, Vermont. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) decided not to seek a fourth two-year term, and Rep. Peter Welch (D, At-Large) opted against running, so there could be competitive primaries on both sides. If this were a midterm year, the race would be a Toss-up, as Shumlin barely won in both 2010 and 2014. In a presidential year, however, one would expect the Democratic White House nominee to carry the state with at least 60%-65% of the vote, which argues for this race to begin with a narrow advantage for the Democrats.

The remaining three gubernatorial races are all in the Northwest: Montana, Washington, and Oregon, the latter of which is a special election. Greg Gianforte (R), the businessman who is angling to challenge Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), made what could be a profoundly damaging gaffe earlier this year, when he argued that the Bible suggests that people should not retire. Another potential Bullock challenger is Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson (R). Polling shows that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is not tremendously popular, but he still has the power of incumbency plus history on his side: The Evergreen State hasn’t elected a Republican governor in 35 years (1980). And Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR), who took over after former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) resigned as a result of scandal, appears to have a decent path to renomination and election to the final two years of the term. Republicans could potentially compete in all three of these states — Montana is the likeliest — but Democrats have the edge for now.

The fact that Democrats are largely on the defensive this gubernatorial cycle shows how limited the opportunities are for them, even though Republicans control 31 of 50 governorships. If Democrats are going to make serious inroads in state politics, they will have to do so in the midterm year of 2018, when the bulk of governorships are contested.

Map 1: 2015-2016 Crystal Ball gubernatorial race ratings

*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the capital of Kentucky, which is Frankfort.