For Democrats anxious to turn the page from a terrible 2014 cycle, the news might get worse before it gets better.
Last fall, Democrats lost control of the Senate and fell further into the minority in the House, but pinned much of the blame on low turnout in the midterm elections. Party strategists were more than ready to look ahead to 2016, when the presidential race should boost turnout among Democratic constituencies. But at least one race this fall could dampen some of the Democratic enthusiasm heading into next year.
Democrats should have the advantage in Kentucky’s race for governor in November, since term-limited Gov. Steven L. Beshear is popular and Democrats have held the governorship for all but four of the last 43 years. The party has rallied behind Jack Conway, the telegenic state attorney general with two statewide victories under his belt, while Republicans have a divided party. Matt Bevin won a competitive GOP primary but is despised by some Republicans for challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell last year. And Republicans just installed a new state party chairman, fewer than four months before Election Day.
For all of those reasons, it was widely assumed that Democrats had the upper hand in the race. But there is some evidence that Democrats are at risk of losing in Kentucky, including a public poll which showed Bevin with a slight advantage.
According to a June 18-21 automated survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, Bevin had a 40 percent to 38 percent edge over Conway in a two-way general election matchup. What might have been more surprising was the candidates’ favorable numbers. Bevin had a 31 percent favorable/28 percent unfavorable rating compared to 31 percent favorable/34 percent unfavorable rating for Conway.
Because of Bevin’s challenge to McConnell, the Republican’s reputation appears to be worse inside the Beltway than it is in Kentucky.
“Bevin is a better candidate than people are giving him credit for,” cautioned one Democratic operative who has done extensive work in Kentucky.
And while Beshear is popular, President Barack Obama’s numbers continue to be terrible in Kentucky. He had a 33 percent job approval/60 percent disapproval in the PPP survey.
Democrats are hoping voters continue to bifurcate state races from federal races, but this race will test that tradition. Multiple party strategists also believe that Bevin is currently benefiting from two years of television ads, while Conway hasn’t been on TV since his re-election race four years ago. Bevin made it through this year’s primary largely unscathed while two of his opponents attacked each other.
Now, both parties are up with television ads, but the race should get even more attention on Aug. 1 at Fancy Farm, when candidates, operatives and reporters gather for the state’s annual political picnic.
Democrats are confident that Conway’s standing will improve after the party educates voters, specifically for not disclosing his personal tax returns and being delinquent on some business taxes. But even though Bevin isn’t an establishment favorite, the Republican Governors Association is on television with an ad pairing Conway with Obama.