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Reporter’s Notebook: Lessons From Kentucky

Can we extrapolate any lessons for West Virginia from the recent elections in Kentucky? Yes and no.

According to unofficial election results, incumbent Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin lost re-election to state Attorney General Andy Beshear in a close race. Beshear had 49.2 percent of the vote, while Bevin had 48.9 percent.

First of all, let’s pop some balloons and rain on some parades. A few narratives are out there on why this happened. The first one was that teachers played a role in ousting Bevin.

Bevin ran afoul of teacher unions during his first term. He tried to reform the teachers’ pension system in a way that upset educators, he tried to cut education spending and he made substantial changes to several state boards that deal with education issues. No doubt unions were fired up to boot Bevin, but that’s not solely why he lost.

Take a look at the numbers. If the teachers unions had really rallied to defeat Bevin, I assume the margin of victory would have been larger. As I write this, the race has yet to be called by the Associated Press, Bevin hasn’t conceded and a recount is likely. It would seem some union members stayed in bed.

The truth is Bevin lost not so much for people voting against him as much as people voting for other Republican candidates on the ballot. According to the unofficial results, Bevin received 711,955 votes. In the election to replace Beshear as attorney general, Republican Daniel Cameron defeated Greg Stumbo 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent. Cameron, the first elected black statewide office holder in Kentucky history, won with 825,814 votes, 16 percent more votes than Bevin received.

In fact, the entire slate of statewide Republican candidates, which included secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and commissioner of agriculture, all received more votes in their races than did Bevin. Of the six statewide races in Kentucky, Bevin received the least number of votes. Even the Libertarian Party candidate for governor received 2 percent of the vote.

These factors tell me Bevin was unpopular even among Republicans. Teachers really had little to do with it. Morning Consult, a polling and research firm, had Bevin ranked as the second most unpopular governor in the nation with only 34 percent approving of his job performance. Bevin was just not that well liked, and no amount of plodding and pleading from President Donald Trump was going to be enough to pull him over the finish line.

This brings me to my second balloon to pop: Bevin’s loss and the Democratic Party gain in the Virginia statehouse are nothing to be spiking the football over. As I pointed out above, all Republican candidates for statewide office won, plus Republicans have super-majorities in their legislatures. Beshear can accomplish some things on his own, but he’s going to have to work with Republicans if he hopes to get an agenda through the legislative process.

Virginia had elections, too, with Democrats taking the statehouse for the first time in 25 years. But as one analyst pointed out on Twitter, the shift is very narrow and frankly unsurprising given that Virginia has been turning blue for a while now.

My point: don’t get out the pom-poms just yet.

If I were Gov. Jim Justice, I would have been glued to the election results. According to that same Morning Consult quarterly poll, Justice is the sixth least popular governor in the country, and his job approval numbers have been going down all year. In fact, Justice was more popular in West Virginia before he switched from Democrat to Republican.

It’s hard to say where Justice stands compared to his Republican primary candidates. I don’t think there has been a poll since the MetroNews West Virginia Poll. I imagine it would show Woody Thrasher rising due to his spending on radio and TV ads, and a slight rise for Mike Folk.

But the Bevin race does have a few lessons for Justice. First, it simply doesn’t matter how much you love Trump, how often you drop his name or how much you bow hunt with his son, etc. Having the support of Trump is not indicative of future results.

Twice now I’ve seen Trump fly in a day before an election and beg voters to support his candidate. It happened in the 2018 U.S. Senate race when Trump came to Huntington to support Patrick Morrisey, and it happened last Monday with Bevin. Voters in Kentucky and West Virginia still love Trump and I don’t know anyone who doubts he will carry both states in 2020, but that love is non-transferable.

Justice’s chances of coming out of the May 12 Republican primary will come down to who has more sway: average Republican and unaffiliated voters who might see Justice as Trump-like, or the Republican activist class (committee members, operatives, volunteers, office holders) who remember Justice as the Democratic candidate in 2016 and are tired of his many issues.

Second issue: just because the Republican Party fields a strong group of candidates doesn’t mean Justice will benefit. Assuming Justice can get out of the primary, even with other incumbent Republican members of the Board of Public Works on the general election ballot, voters can just as easily skip voting for Justice and vote for other candidates and issues on the ballot.

Just ask Matt Bevin.


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