Kentucky GOV: Shoulda Just Laid Low and Run TV Ads

The off-year Kentucky Governor’s race continues to be a hard-to-call event despite the increasingly conservative character of the Blue Grass State and the non-presidential electorate that might turn even redder than usual. The fine folks at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball have seen enough of GOP nominee Matt Bevin that they are no longer rating this race as leaning Republican:

Kentucky is so anti-Obama that it ought to be relatively easy for a Republican to capture the governorship. However, Bevin is not just any Republican. He seemingly has done little to endear himself to his party after winning a surprising primary victory in May, made possible by the top two contenders turning radioactive in the weeks leading up to the contest. Bevin burned bridges with the state party establishment when he unsuccessfully primaried Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) last year. Curtis is a wild card: He’s probably more liberal than Conway, and the Bluegrass Poll showed more “very liberal” voters backing Curtis than “very conservative” voters. At the same time, nearly a fifth of very conservative voters are backing Conway, and we can imagine a fair number of Republicans who either vote for Conway because they dislike Bevin or vote for Curtis as a protest.

Bevin has engaged in bizarre behavior, like stopping by the Kentucky Democratic Party office to complain about a large billboard outside that says “We Still Can’t Trust Matt Bevin.” He has also alienated the Kentucky press corps, essentially refusing to speak with about half of them. Bevin strongly supported Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk of courts who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That ought to have been good politics in a culturally conservative state, although the Bluegrass Poll suggested that Bevin’s moves probably haven’t helped him win any extra support (roughly equal numbers of voters said the Davis affair made them likelier to vote for Conway or Bevin).

This may be a classic case of when a candidate would have done better by just airing TV ads and physically relocating for the general election to, say, Bermuda.

The Sabato/Kondyk piece on this race goes on to suggest that Democratic candidate (and Kentucky Attorney General) Jack Conway isn’t exactly a superstar on the campaign trail, either:

A shrewd source on the political scene in Kentucky described Conway’s visit to a lower-middle class, greasy-spoon breakfast joint to shake hands. Looking like he stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, Conway made his way around the diner, sipping his Starbucks latte.

This reminds me of the great anecdote about the 1968 Senate campaign of the distinguished Ohio liberal John Gilligan which was told me by his press secretary in that campaign:

Gilligan is famously a cerebral sort, and his campaign staff was trying to make him more of a regular guy for the benefit of blue-collar swing voters. So they arranged a photo op wherein he would go to a serious working-class bar in some seriously working-class community like Parma and consume a shot-and-a-beer.

Gilligan wasn’t that happy with the idea, but gamely went to the bar, trailing cameras and reporters, on the appointed night, when the joint was full of sweaty, beefy factory workers. On cue, the bartender asked him to name his poison, and looking right at my friend the press secretary, he said: “I’ll have a glass of sherry.”

Gilligan lost that race, but did go on to election as Governor of Ohio a bit later. Conway lost a Senate race, too, in 2010, to a dude named Rand Paul. Maybe the second time will be a charm for him as well. It sounds like Matt Bevin will give him every opportunity to succeed. And if he does, it will be another blow to the remarkably widespread idea that Republicans have a lock on state elections in most of the country.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.