One week after Kentucky’s gubernatorial election ended in an apparent narrow defeat for incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a panel of political science professors gathered at Western Kentucky University on Tuesday to dissect the results.
Asked by a moderator why support from President Donald Trump wasn’t enough to win Bevin a second term, Political Science Department head Scott Lasley was ready with a quick retort.
“Because he’s Matt Bevin,” Lasley said, speaking at the event in WKU’s Downing Student Union.
After polls closed last week, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear claimed victory over Bevin, with tallies showing a 5,189-vote lead statewide. Bevin, citing “irregularities,” refused to concede the governor’s race and requested a recanvass of vote totals that will take place Thursday.
Explaining his answer, Lasley acknowledged that Bevin did do well in many counties across Kentucky and that “the Trump effect was there.” However, a historically high turnout, reportedly higher than 42 percent, also helped galvanize Democrat voters.
“If you actually go back and look at the map and the number of precincts that went Democrat, it was much larger,” Lasley said. “Even though 2020 is going to be a good year for Republican legislators, if you’re a Republican legislator in the Louisville area, you’re on the endangered list.”
Kentucky holds its gubernatorial elections during odd-numbered years where there aren’t president elections, but Trump will be on the ballot in 2020, along with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. The looming 2020 election brought national media attention to Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, with some observers speculating that a Democratic victory could signal vulnerability for McConnell’s reelection hopes.
“I think that it’s natural for the news to try to bring a national story to this,” said Jeffrey Budziak, an associate professor of political science. Budziak said he was skeptical that the outcome of the governor’s race “tells us much of anything” about 2020.
“If the takeaway is that Mitch McConnell is supposed to be scared about this, I would strongly dispute that takeaway,” Budziak said. “I think that Gov. Bevin is just a uniquely unpopular guy.”
Bevin has polled as one of the most unpopular governors in the country and drew just 52 percent of the vote during his party’s primary.
“That’s a really bad sign,” Budziak said.
Additionally, Republican candidates seeking state offices in Kentucky swept down-ballot races.
Summing up the governor’s race, political science professor Joel Turner said “Beshear successfully ran on a platform of ‘I’m not Matt Bevin.’ ”
Meanwhile, Bevin sought to nationalize the race, seeking to define Beshear through the issue of abortion.
“I don’t know that any of them made a successful issues-based pitch,” Turner said. “Beshear made it about personality. Bevin tried to nationalize it. … From an issue standpoint, it was really not a lot about issues.”
Lasley disagreed with that assessment, citing Bevin’s public missteps with teachers as one example. Bevin has at times publicly feuded with educators, and they have rallied by the thousands to oppose pension and education funding proposals he supported.
“There were folks that volunteered almost every day for five months,” Lasley said, referring to educators who knocked on doors across the state.
The panel appeared unanimous in casting doubt about the likelihood of a contested election that would ultimately place the outcome of the election into the hands of the General Assembly, which is under Republican control.
“I’d be shocked,” Budziak said, adding that lawmakers don’t seem to want that outcome.
Lasley agreed: “That’s just not going to happen.”
Tuesday’s panel drew several students hoping to draw their own conclusions about the election. Among them was Grace Alexieff, a sophomore from Bowling Green and a political science minor. Alexieff attended hoping to glean insights about 2020, she said.
With Beshear’s victory, Alexieff said, “my thoughts were that it was a glimmer of hope in terms of the presidential election, and so I wanted to come to this to get a clear idea of whether that was true or not.”
Although she was disappointed to learn that those connections are likely tenuous, Alexieff said she appreciated the event.
“I thought it was really beneficial,” she said.