It looks, at this writing, as if Matt Bevin has won the Kentucky Governor's race, a race he was trailing in the polls all the way to the end (Ace of Spades Decision Desk HQ called the race a while ago, and now the AP has as well). Bevin's upset win raises seven questions worth pondering as we survey the political landscape:
1. How bad is public polling, or is Kentucky unusually hard to poll? Basically every public poll over the past several weeks had Bevin losing - even his campaign could do no better than muster an internal poll showing him tied (so did Vox Populi, a Republican-leaning pollster that had him at 44-44 and which got bragging rights in 2014 as one of the few pollsters showing anything like a competitive Virginia Senate race). But recall that polls consistently understated [mc_name name='Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)' chamber='senate' mcid='M000355' ]'s margin of victory last year by a wide margin. Maybe we are headed to more catastrophic polling failures in 2016, or maybe Kentucky is just a tough state to poll.
2. How unpopular is the GOP Establishment? Bevin, of course, was hated and scorned by many in the establishment after his primary challenge to McConnell last year, and feuded at times with the RGA over spending in this race. Then again, the RGA poured a lot more money into this race over the summer than Bevin did himself, and ended up with an ad blitz at the end, and both McConnell and Bevin showed the maturity and teamwork to set aside their bad blood and do a joint campaign appearance yesterday. The Louisiana Governor's race on November 21 will provide another test - [mc_name name='Sen. David Vitter (R-LA)' chamber='senate' mcid='V000127' ], unlike Bevin, is a member in good standing of McConnell's caucus, and he seems to be in deep trouble there. If Vitter loses after Bevin won, that may underline the anti-incumbent mood, especially since it would mean both states tossing out the party in power.
3. What comes next for Obamacare? Kentucky's outgoing Democratic Governor, Steve Beshear, was a huge Obamacare booster and ran a big state exchange and Medicaid expansion in Kentucky. Just today, Beshear was quoted in the Washington Post touting Obamacare as a political winner:
“You can tell there’s a pent-up demand and a craving for access to health care,” he said in an interview here. “People came out of the woodwork in droves wanting to find about this. … This is a winner for our people, and because it’s a winner for our people, it’s going to be a winner politically.” Beshear has been publicly attacking Bevin for saying he’d roll back his signature initiative. “He understands that this is now a popular issue for Kentuckians and he’s trying to somehow find a way out of it.”
Expressing confidence that Conway will win today, Beshear told me: “In 2016, I predict the Democratic nominee will make this a major issue and will pound the Republicans into the dust with it.”
So much for that. But Bevin backed away from a full, cold-turkey repeal on the campaign trail, and Democrats still control the lower house of the state legislature. His experience as Governor may prove a test of how Republicans nationally can carry out repeal.
4. Is school choice a winning issue? Americans for Prosperity ran this ad heavily in Democratic Louisville, which has a significant black population, and Josh Kraushaar noted on Twitter that "Internal polling showed it was #2 issue behind jobs" - Jack Conway underperformed past Democratic campaigns in Louisville:
(Kraushaar also notes that Bevin's running mate, Jenean Hampton, will be the first African-American ever elected to statewide office in Kentucky).
5. Is there a religious-liberty backlash on the way? You may recall that the largest political story of 2015 in Kentucky was the fight over county clerk Kim Davis' refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Despite the fact that Davis was an elected Democrat, Beshear and Conway ran away from her like the plague, while Bevin embraced the idea that state officials can have some conscience protections, and Davis wound up smelling which way the wind was blowing and switching parties. Bevin otherwise ran a hard-edged social-issues campaign. Most of America isn't Kentucky, where a pro-traditional-marriage amendment had passed with 75% of the vote in 2004, but clearly, the controversy didn't hurt Bevin.
6. How much of a factor is Obama fatigue? Bevin worked hard to nationalize the race, and ads pounded the Democrats by tying them to a president who has never been popular in Kentucky. Vitter is doing more of the same in Louisiana, and if he survives there, it may show that down-ballot Democrats, at least in red states, simply aren't going to escape Obama's shadow as long as he's in office. I'd be feeling pretty glum tonight if I was a candidate planning to oppose [mc_name name='Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)' chamber='senate' mcid='P000603' ] in his re-election race next fall.
7. How much do good candidates and political experience matter? Does Bevin herald the virtue of political amateurs? Maybe not so much, since his campaign was still a rocky one and perhaps just as importantly, it was his second go-round as a statewide candidate, so he had clearly learned some lessons from getting clobbered by McConnell and surviving an expensive and hotly-contested gubernatorial primary. And he was facing an opponent with a long track record of losing competitive races, in a state that is increasingly dark red. But naysayers who called Bevin an unelectable loose cannon were proven wrong.
In short, most of the lessons of Bevin's victory should be taken to heart by Tea Partiers and other conservative insurgents. Bevin ran on bold conservative colors, but he showed some moderation in approaching the practical challenge of scaling back an entitlement (Obamacare) already in place. He ran as an outsider, but he did better the second time around than the first. He challenged the political establishment, but he also worked with the RGA and Mitch McConnell when it was in his benefit to do so. If you want to follow his path to victory, learn the ropes and keep your eyes on the prize.