Politics

A candidate who barely made it out of the primary ended up leading Kentucky Republicans to one of their most successful election days in recent history.

Matt Bevin will be just the second Republican governor of Kentucky since 1971, a distinction he earned Tuesday with 53 percent of the vote — 9 percentage points better than Democrat Jack Conway. Independent Drew Curtis had less than 4 percent of the vote.

A Bluegrass Poll released last week indicated the opposite result, showing Conway leading Bevin 45-40.

With two of the four other statewide races going Republican, Bevin told supporters gathered Tuesday night at the Galt House in Louisville that the election was going “to change the tenor of the state.”

“This is a great night for conservatives in Kentucky,” said Bevin, standing with his family and running mate Jenean Hampton, who will become Kentucky’s first African-American lieutenant governor.

Democrats have held most of the major state offices for decades, but the party has been slowly losing its foothold among rural white Democratic voters.

“I think, frankly, the tide is turning,” Bevin told reporters. “I think we in Kentucky are tired of the same old thing.”

Jack ConwayJacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Jack Conway

Bevin barely ascended the Republican primary earlier this year. He won a bitter GOP campaign by a mere 83 votes in May over outgoing Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a year after a sound defeat by Sen. Mitch McConnell in that primary. Some political analysts had predicted Bevin’s narrow margin in the gubernatorial primary would hinder Republicans in the general election — a prediction that turned out to be as wrong as the pre-election polling.

On Tuesday evening, Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Steve Robertson said the GOP has been slowly gaining an edge in the state. He said a Republican sweep was bound to happen.

“I think Kentucky is now moving into that red column, and we are joining our neighbors to the South,” Robertson said.

For the Democrats, low voter turnout was the biggest hurdle. Just 31 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Kentucky’s last Republican governor was Ernie Fletcher, whose bid for a second term was halted by Gov. Steve Beshear. Before Fletcher, no Republican had been the state’s chief executive since Louie Nunn left office in 1971.

Overall, election night was bruising for the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Democrats held onto the secretary of state and the attorney general offices, but lost the state auditor and state treasurer seats to Republicans.

“Tonight is not the result that we had hoped for, but it is the result that we respect,” Conway told his crowd of supporters in Frankfort.

Jenean HamptonJ. Tyler Franklin

Jenean Hampton

Democrats have one stronghold in state government: They still control the state House. Speaker Greg Stumbo said he’s hoping Democrats can work effectively with Bevin.

“I’m hopeful that Governor-elect Bevin will be one that will work toward a solution and not create more problems,” he said.

Democrats’ instant analysis of the election night defeats focused on cultural issues and economics. Political pundits had mused about what they were calling the Kim Davis Effect, named for the Rowan County clerk who drew national attention for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses this summer and fall. The suggestion was that a large swath of conservative rural Democrats, inspired by Davis, would support Republican candidates.

Conway, the outgoing attorney general, opted last year to not appeal a federal ruling that invalidated Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban.

“I think the gay issue, if you look at Jack not taking that case,” said Rowan County Judge-Executive Doc Blevins, a Democrat. “The thing with Kim Davis, that’s a big factor. It’s just a rallying cry for some people.”

But there were other theories. Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons said voters blamed the party for the state’s economic troubles over the past several years.

“Kentucky voters and citizens still haven’t recovered from the big recession of 2008,” he said. “We have a lot of people still suffering — our economy’s weak, our tax base is weak.”

The Democratic election night party was quieter than supporters had hoped for. Once all the results were in, Democrats took to the stage to try to rally a disappointed crowd with defiant speeches.

“We are not finished in Kentucky,” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Hughes.

In his concession speech, Conway tried to soothe the crowd.

But energized Republicans were already gearing up for 2016: The night’s speeches ended with a crowd of Republicans chanting “flip the House.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.