Nobody predicted that Republican candidate for governor Matt Bevin would beat Democrat Jack Conway by nine points. Nobody. The Bluegrass Poll had Conway up by five points just days before the election. We learned last year that the same poll was wildly off target when it had Grimes and McConnell deadlocked within weeks of the 2014 election for U.S. Senate. Of course, McConnell won handily by 15 points. Takeaway: Don’t believe every poll. Voters should be especially wary of the Bluegrass Poll from now on.
Voters across much of the Commonwealth were inundated with negative mailers trashing Bevin. Many came from the Kentucky Democratic Party and the Democratic Super PAC Kentucky Family Values. Both spent oodles of cash and also flooded the tv and radio airwaves with ugly attack ads. They campaigned on charges that were disproven by independent fact checking organizations. Some of the ads were condescending and played on Kentucky stereotypes. Voters were worn out by the negative ads. Conway-leaning voters turned away. And the fractured Republicans were emboldened to vote for Bevin. Takeaway: A Bevin victory soundly repudiated the idea that negativing campaigning always works.
It is clear that the Democratic party, Conway campaign and pro-Conway Super PACs outspent Bevin and pro-Bevin PACs. However, they oversaturated many media markets, mostly with negative ads that voters grew tired of and eventually became disgusted with. Takeaway: Respect the voters sensibilities. Don’t clutter their mailboxes with negative ads and bombard their favorite radio and tv stations with constant trash talk.
Bevin and Kentucky’s big media (Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville Courier-Journal) feuded throughout the entire campaign. This apparently wasn’t so bad. Big media, which leans decidedly left. is not trusted by a significant number of voters. The part big media failed to fairly report was that he is winsome, a natural campaigner, and connected better with the voters than Conway who often seemed uncomfortable. Bevin’s candidacy contrasted well with a status-quo opponent who had little passion or vision for tackling tough issues facing Kentucky. Bevin’s military service, business experience and solution-oriented approach appealed to voters. His outsider status helped in a time where Frankfort is distrusted. Big media seized on Bevin’s mistakes and flaws but missed the bigger picture about the candidate. Takeaway: Big media can be bypassed to win statewide elections.
It is no secret that Kentucky is facing many serious challenges. The question voters answered was which candidate could best address the issues and challenges facing Kentucky. Matt Bevin touted his Blueprint for a better Kentucky and openly shared his ideas. Jack Conway focussed on Bevin’s shortcomings and spent much of his time on the attack. Voters were left uncertain if Conway would meet the challenge or even had much of a plan. Takeaway: Gubernatorial candidates must present a compelling vision of leadership to the voters.
Jack Conway’s political associations didn’t match well with Kentucky values. His alliance to the abortion industry was catastrophic to a candidacy outside of Louisville. He was financially supported by Planned Parenthood’s PAC in a previous campaign. And Planned Parenthood engaged the race on his behalf this election. Takeaway: Political connections with organizations that deal in the dismembered remains of the unborn (PP is the number one abortionist in the nation) is toxic.
When Jack Conway was asked last month on public radio about Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, he treated the issue almost as a distraction. Conway didn’t acknowledge Rowan County clerk Kim Davis’ claim to religious freedom. Yet Conway claimed his conscience wouldn’t let him appeal a ruling that struck down Kentucky’s marriage law. Many voters saw this as hypocritical. An estimated 6000 values voters rallied for religious freedom at the state capitol in August. Another rally of similar size, although underreported by the media, took place in Rowan County the day Kim Davis was released from jail. Takeaway: Religious freedom was one of the compelling issues that motivated conservatives to vote for Bevin.
Matt Bevin received minimal help from the Republican donor class which hadn’t fully recovered from Bevin challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in last year’s primary for U.S. Senate. However, Sen. Mitch McConnell buried the hatchet, endorsed Bevin, hosted a fundraiser for him and did a robo call just days before the election. Overall, the GOP establishment, including the Republican Party of Kentucky, wasn’t fully engaged. Their involvement with Bevin was minimal compared to their involvement with Sen. David William’s gubernatorial bid in 2011. Williams only garnered 35 percent of the vote then. Takeaway: GOP outsiders have discovered they can win without full engagement of the mainline party.
Republicans won four of six seats last Tuesday. Rising star in the Democratic Party Adam Edelen, who raised some $800,000 was defeated by State Rep. Mike Harmon who raised less than $40,000. The upset sent shockwaves through the party. Interestingly, at the end of the night, Democrats invoked moral values and Biblical themes and implicitly recognized that social issues played a key role in huge GOP upsets. House Speaker Greg Stumbo delivered what sounded at times like a sermon. At one point he said “the principles of the Bible become the principles of our party.” While he admitted that he never read the entire Bible, he was pretty sure Jesus wasn’t a Republican. Speaker Stumbo’s speech came across as condescending and disrespectful. The question is: if Democrats like Greg Stumbo are sincere about steering their party in a socially conservative direction, they can prove it by redirecting $331,000 the state is funneling to Planned Parenthood and passing pro-life legislation in the 2016 legislative session. Scripture says that “you will know them by their fruits.” That’s in the Bible Speaker Stumbo.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center. He resides in Cadiz with his family.