Matt Bevin
Credit: Gage Skidmore

You can bet that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be paying close attention to the election returns for the governor’s race in Kentucky on Tuesday night. Incumbent Republican Matt Bevin, who has been vying for the title of least popular governor in the country, will face the current state attorney general, Democrat Andy Beshear. One year from now, McConnell, the nation’s least popular senator, is up for re-election.

As Travis Waldron notes, Bevin has patterned himself after Donald Trump, who remains very popular in Kentucky.

For four years, the governor has presented himself as Kentucky’s version of President Donald Trump: He regularly blasts his critics in social media tirades that are filled with petty insults about journalists who cover him, judges who issue rulings he dislikes and political opponents (from his party or the other) who dare question him.

For Bevin, that has meant not only trying to gut Obamacare and give big tax breaks to banks. When teachers went on strike against attempts to privatize their pensions, Bevin responded by saying, “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.” The governor eventually apologized, but pulled a similar stunt a few months later.

In addition to counting on Trump’s popularity in Kentucky, Bevin is running a typical Republican “wedge issue” campaign by going all-in on so-called “cultural issues” like abortion. He even went so far as to refer to his opponent as “pro death” in a campaign ad. While Beshear is pro-choice, he has focused his campaign primarily on health care and education, aligning himself with the teacher’s movement that has developed in response to Bevin and the Republican state legislature.

The outcome of this race could hinge on whose message resonates. Will Bevin be able to motivate voters on wedge issues or can Beshear tap into their concerns about health care and education? The teachers could be the key.

[Bevin] may also have hurt himself in smaller, rural counties, where public schools, health systems and the state government are often the largest employers.

“[The teachers] have been able to whip up a decent amount of anti-Bevin fervor in places that are generally Republican,” Voss said. “And they’ve also been able to keep the focus of the governor’s race on economic and lunch-pail issues, more so than usual.”

At this point, the few polls that have been conducted in this race show that Beshear is, at worst, tied with Bevin. But since we’re talking about Kentucky, the Democrat is still a long shot.

What this race demonstrates is something we see over and over again in national campaigns as well as state and local elections. It is almost always the Republicans who want to talk about cultural issues as a wedge to drive up fear and division. On the other hand, it is usually the Democrat who highlights the so-called “kitchen table” issues. It is past time for everyone to recognize that they are spouting Republican talking points when they assume that the reverse is true.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.