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Kentucky Governor: With a Month to Go, Bevin Has Squandered His Edge

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik

For months we’ve argued that Kentucky’s increasing lean toward the Republican Party and the state’s antipathy toward President Barack Obama gave businessman Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee, a generic edge in the open Kentucky gubernatorial race. While Bevin is not a strong candidate, we thought that ultimately those inherent advantages — advantages that have nothing to do with Bevin’s campaign — nonetheless made him a small favorite over state Attorney General Jack Conway (D).

We no longer feel that way. With five weeks to go the Kentucky gubernatorial race is now a pure Toss-up, instead of Leans Republican. Bevin is in real danger of blowing this race.

In fact, according to the Bluegrass Poll released Wednesday, Conway is leading by five points, 42%-37%, with 7% for independent Drew Curtis, the quirky founder of the website Fark.com. Conway recently said that his internal polls and those from the Democratic Governors Association also show him leading by five points.

This race is confounding. Kentucky is so anti-Obama that it ought to be relatively easy for a Republican to capture the governorship. However, Bevin is not just any Republican. He seemingly has done little to endear himself to his party after winning a surprising primary victory in May, made possible by the top two contenders turning radioactive in the weeks leading up to the contest. Bevin burned bridges with the state party establishment when he unsuccessfully primaried Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) last year. Curtis is a wild card: He’s probably more liberal than Conway, and the Bluegrass Poll showed more “very liberal” voters backing Curtis than “very conservative” voters. At the same time, nearly a fifth of very conservative voters are backing Conway, and we can imagine a fair number of Republicans who either vote for Conway because they dislike Bevin or vote for Curtis as a protest.

Bevin has engaged in bizarre behavior, like stopping by the Kentucky Democratic Party office to complain about a large billboard outside that says “We Still Can’t Trust Matt Bevin.” He has also alienated the Kentucky press corps, essentially refusing to speak with about half of them. Bevin strongly supported Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk of courts who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That ought to have been good politics in a culturally conservative state, although the Bluegrass Poll suggested that Bevin’s moves probably haven’t helped him win any extra support (roughly equal numbers of voters said the Davis affair made them likelier to vote for Conway or Bevin).

This may be a classic case of when a candidate would have done better by just airing TV ads and physically relocating for the general election to, say, Bermuda.

But he’s not even running many ads. While Conway has spent at least $2 million on television, with the Democratic Governors Association also investing heavily, the wealthy Bevin has hardly spent anything to help himself in the general election. The Republican Governors Association has spent close to $3 million, but earlier this week the RGA said it was taking a break from the race, apparently leaving Bevin to fend for himself. The RGA indicated that it could resume spending for Bevin at any point — and that point might be after Bevin commits substantial sums to his own campaign, assuming he takes the hint. Reports surfaced Wednesday that Bevin has purchased nearly $1.1 million worth of television ad time for the last month of the election, but the RGA may be looking for more than that.

We have no way of knowing this, but could McConnell or his allies have told the RGA to pull the plug on his one-time rival Bevin, even though McConnell has endorsed him? It’s not impossible to imagine, and we have heard that some senior state Republicans are worried that Bevin could do long-term damage to the Kentucky GOP if he is elected and continues his practice of generating controversy. Bevin has done little to allay these fears, seemingly going out of his way to alienate his fellow Bluegrass State Republicans. On Wednesday, he effectively endorsed Ben Carson for president, a slap in the face to home-state Sen. Rand Paul, who is set to campaign with Bevin this weekend. Bevin quickly backtracked on Twitter.

At the same time, Jack Conway is — by almost all accounts — a poor campaigner. A shrewd source on the political scene in Kentucky described Conway’s visit to a lower-middle class, greasy-spoon breakfast joint to shake hands. Looking like he stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, Conway made his way around the diner, sipping his Starbucks latte. In a recent debate among the three candidates, a sweaty, flat Conway turned in a poor performance, and it was widely judged to be so. Kentucky political reporter Joe Gerth opened a column recapping the debate with a line we wish we had thought of: “If genius, as former Louisvillian Thomas Alva Edison once said, is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, then Attorney General Jack Conway is the smartest man in Kentucky.” Gerth added that after the debate “all people wanted to talk about was Conway’s sweat-filled performance where he glistened in the television lights. He seemed unsure of himself at times and his attempts at humor fell flat.” Oddly, Conway decided to do an intense workout just prior to the debate, not a wise TV prep if you’re inclined to perspire as much as Richard Nixon did in his first 1960 faceoff with John F. Kennedy.

Conway’s last big-time contest was a 2010 Senate race against another anti-establishment Republican, Rand Paul. He failed to impress and lost by double digits, although that was a difficult year to be a Democrat anywhere.

This contest reminds us somewhat of Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial race. The Democratic nominee (now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe) was attached to a bag of question marks. The Republican nominee (then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli) turned off many members of his own party. And a third-party candidate (Libertarian Robert Sarvis) was there to take disaffected voters away from both parties. McAuliffe won that 2013 race, and Conway might as well, although Virginia is much more Democratic overall than Kentucky is. It’s also worth noting that while McAuliffe won, he only did so by about 2.5 points, far less than polls had suggested. McAuliffe’s victory broke a streak, going back to 1977, of Virginia voting against the president’s party in its gubernatorial contest. Kentucky often votes for Democratic governors, but a Conway victory would nonetheless represent an unlikely victory in a polarized age when red states typically vote against the president’s party up and down the ballot.

Ultimately, it’s that anti-Obama factor that could yet save Bevin. The Bluegrass Poll shows Obama’s approval at about 30% and his disapproval rating twice that, and there are a lot of undecideds in this survey, many of whom dislike the president. Also, the RGA could be back up on the air at a moment’s notice. There’s still a month to go, and either candidate can win, but the trend is moving in Conway’s favor at the moment. To reiterate, the Kentucky governors’ race is now a Toss-up, and we’ll lean it one way or the other before Election Day.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Larry Sabato

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

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