Politics

Kentuckians dislike their governor and one of their senators more than the residents of any of the other 49 states. Yet, Kentuckians could re-elect Matt Bevin as governor this November.

The non-partisan D.C.-based Cook Political Report ranks Bevin’s race against Democrat Andy Behear as a toss-up right now. The state is, according to Cook, also “likely” to send Mitch McConnell back to the Senate for a seventh term next fall, even though Democrat and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath raised more than $2.5 million last month in her first day as candidate.

So what gives? Why aren’t Kentuckians happy with Bevin and McConnell? (After all, Donald Trump is popular in Kentucky, and Bevin seems to be modeling his political approach after the president. Plus, McConnell has been hugely important in getting Trump’s judicial picks confirmed in the Senate.) And if Kentuckians aren’t happy with Bevin and McConnell, why are they strongly considering re-electing them?

Let’s start with the unpopularity. The polling firm Morning Consult regularly interviews voters across the 50 states and asks them their feelings about their home-state governors and senators. In surveys conducted from April to June, just 34 percent of Kentucky registered voters said that they approved of McConnell, compared to 50 percent who disapprove of the senator. Bevin had a significantly-worse standing than the senator — just 32 percent of Kentucky voters approve of him, compared to 56 percent who disapprove. And this wasn’t just a single poll — surveys through 2018 and earlier in 2019 conducted by Morning Consult also found both men very unpopular in Kentucky.

Consider that it’s not like all Americans hate the politicians who represent them. In traditionally-Democratic Massachusetts, 73 percent of voters approve of Gov. Charles Baker, a Republican, while just 14 percent disapprove. Among Kentuckians, Trump (56 percent approval, 41 percent disapproval, according to Morning Consult) and Rand Paul (40 percent approval, 39 percent disapproval) are both much more popular than Bevin and McConnell. (But nationally, Paul is the 9th most unpopular in his home state, so he’s not doing that great, either.)

What explains the unpopularity of Kentucky’s two central political figures? Longtime Kentucky political writer Al Cross told me in an e-mail that he felt a big part of the unpopularity of Bevin and McConnell is “unappealing personalities.” I think that’s right. McConnell is just not a particularly charismatic figure. Bevin is charismatic and engaging at times, but exhibits a bit of a mean streak. His caustic comments about the state’s teachers are probably one of the main reasons that Beshear could defeat him this November.

A second big factor is that Bevin and McConnell are highly-partisan figures, very aggressively pushing forward conservative policies and attacking Democrats. That probably explains two things: why Democratic-leaning voters in Kentucky really don’t like either man and why both have fairly bad ratings with independent voters. Even some Republicans may agree with Bevin and McConnell on policy issues but wish that they accomplished conservative goals in a less partisan way (which might not be possible, in fairness to the two politicians).

McConnell “is to many Democrats what Nancy Pelosi has been for Republicans,” said Scott Lasley, a Western Kentucky University political science professor.

So, Why Might Kentuckians Re-Elect Bevin And McConnell?

Why can they win re-election anyway? That’s easier to understand.

“Partisanship,” said Adam Enders, a University of Louisville political scientist who studies political polarization. Kentuckians have long backed Republicans at the federal level and are increasingly doing so in state races, too. Bevin and McConnell are likely to run up huge margins in the state’s more rural areas, as white Americans in rural areas increasingly back the GOP both in Kentucky and nationwide. About 40 percent of Kentuckians live in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a number bigger than all but seven states.

“Kentucky contains a large number of voters who regularly select Republicans in nationally-relevant elections, yet do not think of themselves as members of the GOP,” said Stephen Voss, an expert on voting behavior who teaches political science at the University of Kentucky. “These reluctant Republicans may be registered as Democrats or independents, and in the abstract they say they would like to vote for Democrats, but then the campaign clarifies their choices and they return to the GOP fold on Election Day.”

In short, the simple story of Bevin and McConnell is essentially two unpopular politicians thriving on Kentuckians’ hate of Democrats, particularly the urban, liberal values of the national Democratic Party.

But I think there’s a more complicated story that is slightly different from that simple one. Lee Drutman, a scholar at the D.C.-based think tank New America, breaks the electorate down into four types of voters:

  1. Progressive (left-leaning on both economic issues and cultural ones like immigration, so mostly Democratic voters);
  2. Classical Liberal (left-leaning on issues like immigration, but more conservative on economics);
  3. Populist (left-leaning on economic issues, but conservative on issues like immigration); and
  4. Conservative (right-leaning on both economic issues and cultural issues, so mainly Republicans).

Using a series of polls done as part of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (VSG), a research project where a group of think tanks and scholars are doing regular analyses of the U.S. electorate, Drutman broke out the views of voters in what the Census Bureau defines as the “East South Central” region of the U.S. That includes Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. (The VSG sample of voters just in Kentucky was too small for a formal analysis.)

What Drutman found was that this region has a higher percentage of voters who are populist  (conservative on cultural issues, liberal on economics) than any other region in the country. In that bloc of four states, including Kentucky, conservative and populist voters (each about 30 percent of the electorate) are about equally-split, while there are significantly more conservatives than populists in other regions.

So my theory (and this is just a theory) is that a more popular model of politician for Kentucky might be someone who is primarily a populist and therefore can appeal to populists, progressives and conservatives, instead of a pure conservative who might have trouble appealing to other blocs.

The Populist Candidate

What I have in mind is a Democrat or Republican who is based in a rural part of the state and emphasizes his or her support for say, some limits on abortion (so conservative culturally) but also defends Medicaid spending for the poor and taxpayer-funded jobs like teachers (so economically more liberal). Think Rocky Adkins, the longtime Democratic leader in the Kentucky House of Representatives who represents a rural district in Eastern Kentucky and describes himself as pro-life, or Hal Rogers, the longtime Republican U.S. representative from that region who is not as focused on cutting government spending as conservatives like Bevin.

Similarly, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia are two Democrats who emphasize their connections with rural voters and support some limits to abortion but also are strong supporters of Medicaid spending. Both men have better ratings in their states than Bevin or McConnell.

Bevin and McConnell, I would argue, are probably to the right of many of the state’s voters on economics. Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the nation, with more than 20 percent of its residents on Medicaid. But both Bevin and McConnell have been leading figures in the national Republican Party’s attempts to reduce the number of people getting insurance through Medicaid. And Democrats are running unabashedly fairly-liberal candidates based in Louisville and Lexington in key races (like ex-Lexington mayor Jim Gray, who was the party’s Senate candidate in 2016 against Paul). Those politicians may be culturally to the left of Kentuckians in more rural areas.

“Neither Bevin nor McConnell have advocated or passed legislation that in any significant way assisted the blue-collar working families of Kentucky,” said Terri Branham Clark, a Democratic state representative who represents a district in the Ashland area in northeastern Kentucky. But she emphasized that many Democrats are out of touch with Kentuckians because they support abortion rights.

But populist politicians, even as they might be more popular with the state’s overall electorate, are not ideal for each party’s primaries. Bevin and Paul, in their initial runs for governor and senator respectively, beat more populist rivals in GOP primaries. Early this year, Adkins lost the Democratic primary for governor to Beshear because of his poor showings in urban areas, where his anti-abortion stance probably didn’t help. In terms of raising money and getting activist support in Kentucky primaries, it’s probably easier to be a city-based, culturally-liberal Democrat or a small-government, anti-Medicaid Republican than a populist figure.

Trump has largely governed as a small-government Republican. But I think his high numbers among Kentuckians are in part a carryover from how he campaigned in 2016 Trump pledged to limit abortion and immigration but also to defend the coal industry and provide all Americans with health insurance.

Perhaps Matt Bevin and Mitch McConnell are simply not particularly good politicians and they are just less popular than they should be. But I wonder if the structure of the state’s politics is leaving Kentuckians constantly stuck choosing between a Republican candidate they dislike and a Democrat they dislike even more.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter (@perrybaconjr) or e-mail (perrylbacon@gmail.com).