“The name-calling, the behavior,” said Jimenez, a 52-year-old former teacher, referring to his repeated, denigrating attacks on educators. “That’s not someone I’d want to represent Kentucky.”
Bevin entered Election Day on Tuesday with many advantages: as a GOP incumbent in an increasingly red state; as an ally of President Donald Trump (who spoke at a rally for Bevin the night before); and as a conservative whose views on abortion, guns and coal resonated with many in the state. Yet he ran into hardened opposition from voters like Jimenez who decided he had crossed the line too many times in his conduct and comments in office.
Bevin is now running roughly 5,000 votes behind the Democratic candidate, Andy Beshear, and has refused to concede while asking for a statewide recanvassing of votes.
The political backlash against Bevin stands in sharp contrast to the oft-repeated argument by Trump that he could say or do anything and his supporters would never abandon him. The vote results in Kentucky and a handful of other states suggest that the president’s theory does not apply to other Republicans — and raises questions about whether some of the moderate and suburban voters who turned against Bevin on Tuesday might also desert Trump in 2020 if offered an acceptable alternative.
Bevin’s supporters and detractors alike attributed his problems at the ballot box to his particular limitations as a politician, rather than any larger rejection of Republicans. All other statewide Republican candidates in Kentucky easily prevailed Tuesday. But Trump’s ability to vault his preferred Republican candidates to victory in red states is not boundless, coming up short when it comes to particularly unpopular candidates, like Roy Moore in Alabama, and the Kentucky results seemed to affirm that there are limits to what you can do and say and still be elected.
In the current hyperpartisan era, Bevin’s close identification with Trump might have seemed like a winning strategy, given that Trump was staring down impeachment and urging his supporters to send a message by backing the governor.
But the anger of many Kentuckians about Bevin’s rolling back of government benefits like public pensions and Medicaid, and the startlingly abrasive way he went about it, proved to be a force even stronger than the tidal pull of red-versus-blue politics. Teachers, Republican legislators, even members of his own administration said they had been bullied and insulted by Bevin, and thousands of fed-up educators across the state went to work for his defeat.
“This race is about a governor who has brought a bad agenda to the people of Kentucky, and while he has done that, he has mocked our people, he’s called them names, he’s disrespected them, he’s locked them out of the Capitol building,” said Rocky J. Adkins, the Democratic state House leader and runner-up in the Democratic primary to Beshear. “I think after a while when you slap people around long enough and you knock down people, you kick them long enough, they’re going to find a time to get even.”
The intensely close vote in such a conservative state demonstrated the limits of attempting to nationalize state elections, highlighted the anti-Trump intensity of urban and suburban voters and heartened moderate Democrats eyeing 2020 who were delighted to see a pragmatic candidate unseat a disliked Republican incumbent.
Taken together with the Democrats’ capture of the Virginia state legislature, the Kentucky results indicate that liberal and moderate voters are as energized now as they were in last year’s midterm elections.
But just as 2018 demonstrated that Republicans can still make gains in conservative states, no matter how poor the national political environment, Tuesday also captured the limitations Democrats face in red states when they are not running against flawed opponents. In Mississippi, Democrats fielded their most promising nominee for governor in 16 years, Attorney General Jim Hood, but could not come within 5 points of defeating Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who had faced a contested primary.
These results make the last campaign of 2019, the Louisiana governor’s race a week from Saturday, even more symbolically important: It is a test of whether a relatively popular Democrat, Gov. John Bel Edwards, can be reelected against a little-known Republican businessman, Eddie Rispone, in a pro-Trump state. The president appeared with Rispone on Wednesday in Louisiana, but it was the results Tuesday from across the state line, in Mississippi, that seemed ominous for Democrats.
Hood was well-funded, received help from national Democratic groups and hoped to defeat the button-down Reeves with a down-home style and old-fashioned populism, including a promise to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
But Hood was unable to win over working-class white voters, including many who voted for him in his previous races for attorney general.
“All this partisanship, you know, is something that hopefully will change,” a dismayed Hood told supporters Tuesday night, speaking in unusually personal terms. “It has gotten to such an extent that people that you know and go to church with don’t vote for you, you know. And something’s wrong with that.”
Reeves was not universally adored within his own party. Despite being a heavily favored front-runner, he was forced into a primary runoff in August after a strong showing by a former state Supreme Court justice. Reeves had made several enemies in the powerful lieutenant governor’s office, and some Republican officials were simply turned off by what they saw as his highhanded style.
But any shortcomings were not, in the end, deal breakers. Reeves made the case that he and his fellow Republicans had been good stewards of Mississippi’s economy and deserved credit for improvements in standardized test scores of the state’s grade-school students.
And, of course, Reeves had Trump.
Last Friday, the president came to Tupelo, in the heart of northeast Mississippi and home to Hood — an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat who had kept the race close with ads that emphasized his country bona fides (truck, hunting dog, guns). White voters in the region had been splitting their tickets, to Hood’s advantage, for years.
But Trump was there to bring them fully into the Republican fold, and, in between railing against impeachment, he called Hood a “liberal Democrat” who supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The combination of the president issuing a which-side-are-you-on plea and the presence of an uncontroversial, though not beloved Republican on the ballot made it all but impossible for Democrats to narrow the gap.
“I just think it’s numbers,” said Hampton Glover, 56, a tax attorney from Meridian, Mississippi, who was at Hood’s party Tuesday. “It’s Republicans voting for their nominee. It’s as simple as that.”
Increasingly, it seems that the only time it is not that simple in Republican-dominated states is under extraordinary circumstances. Doug Jones is a Democratic senator from Alabama because Moore’s conduct with underage girls proved too much for voters there. Conservative-leaning Kansas now has a Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, after Republicans nominated Kris Kobach, a hard-liner who turned off suburbanites. In Louisiana, Edwards is running as an incumbent because enough people were turned off by his Republican opponent in 2015: David Vitter, who had been caught in a prostitution scandal. And now Bevin risks the same fate.
At the Republican election night party at a hotel in Louisville, the winning candidates walked up to a roomful of cheers, one by one. Agriculture commissioner, treasurer, auditor. Republicans won control of the secretary of state’s office. Daniel Cameron became the state’s first Republican attorney general to be elected in more than 70 years — and its first black attorney general.
That the GOP held on to supermajorities in the state Legislature last year, even after thousands of teachers walked out to protest budget cuts and changes to their pensions — protests that Bevin had described as “ignorant” and leading to child abuse — had convinced many Republicans that the party had little to worry about. And generally they were right, with the exception of the governor himself.
“We targeted specifically Matt Bevin,” said Nema Brewer, who helped start a group, KY 120 United, to support public educators. “We’ve been focused on this mission for a year and half.”
Brewer said her group had grown to 40,000 politically motivated members, nearly all of them women. And she said that if you look at counties where the group was strong — like Scott in the Lexington suburbs and Carter in the eastern mountains — you will find counties that Bevin won in 2015 and lost this time.
“You cut the head off the snake,” she said.
For months before the election, many Kentucky voters talked of feeling politically homeless: They did not like Bevin, but they found it hard to vote for a candidate like Beshear, who supports abortion rights. Some of these voters ended up punishing Bevin by opposing both major party nominees: John Hicks, the Libertarian nominee, received over 28,000 votes, more than five times the size of Beshear’s statewide margin.
The Beshear campaign was not oblivious to the partisan math and, for the most part, spoke accordingly.
“There is nothing partisan about our kitchen table agenda,” Jacqueline Coleman, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, declared after she took the stage Tuesday night.
On the stump, Beshear focused relentlessly on public education and health care — which in many rural areas are the twin economic pillars — and talked of “our Kentucky values,” apolitical things like respect and neighborliness. Emphasizing Beshear’s childhood in western Kentucky, his campaign also reminded voters that Bevin is a wealthy businessman who moved into the state from the northeast. “It’s time to send him back to New Hampshire,” Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, told voters Monday.
And this, in a state that is otherwise comfortably conservative, might have made a difference.
“I’m more likely to vote Republican,” said Ann-Jeanette Dale, 57, a retired elementary school librarian, who Tuesday was wearing both her red teacher solidarity shirt and her “I Voted” sticker. That is, she said, until Bevin — what he did, how he talked, who he was — broke old habits.
“A lot of people,” she said, “see him as an outsider.”
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