Crazy Kentucky

Notes on the Most Important Election of 2015

by Jacob Hopkins

While it’s widely known that most electoral action takes place during a presidential or midterm election, the years in between the two are filled with some fascinating and important contests. In Virginia, every seat in the state legislature is up for re-election, and the Virginia Democratic Party is trying to wrestle away one Senate seat away from the Republicans to take back the chamber. In the New Jersey State House, Democrats are trying to capitalize on Governor Chris Christie’s unpopularity to increase their numbers and perhaps even capture a supermajority. In Mississippi the last Democrat from the deep South elected to statewide office is fighting to hold onto his post of attorney general. There are also elections in Louisiana, where the Republican Party is engaged in an intense fight over who the state’s next governor should be. But all of these interesting and critical elections pale in comparison to the bizarre sequence of events unfolding in Kentucky.

In order to fully understand what’s going on in Kentucky, one should look  back to the Republican wave election of 2010. At the time, Jack Conway was the Democratic Attorney General of Kentucky running against a libertarian Tea-Party ophthalmologist named Rand Paul to assume Kentucky’s Senate seat in the Senate being vacated by retiring Republican Jim Bunning. To describe that election as a crash-and-burn for Conway would be more than generous. He fumbled on his response to the Affordable Care Act’s unpopularity and looked like an out-of-touch liberal to the conservative electorate of that state. Paul easily won, and Conway was left his attorney generalship as a consolation prize.

Conway managed to win reelection as Attorney General of Kentucky in 2011 after being crushed by Paul. In short, his political career had new life. The Democratic Party of Kentucky also received a huge boon in 2012 and 2014 when they managed to hold onto the Kentucky House of Representatives, even after being forecasted to lose the chamber. This boost will help the party as they look to hold on to the state’s governorship in 2015.

One could further argue that the Republican establishment in Kentucky had a good election in 2014. They succeeded in holding back a primary challenge to Senator Mitch McConnell from tea partier Matt Bevin. They also managed not lose any seats in the State House, despite running a by-any-measure horrible campaign, to take the chamber for the first time in over a century.

It appears as if what was once considered a solid pickup opportunity for Republicans is slowly slipping out of grasp.

However, this success for the Republican establishment would come to a crushing end very soon.  In a rough-and-tumble bid for his party’s  nomination for Governor, the same Matt Bevin who  had challenged Mitch McConnell one year before managed to win the primary by only 83 votes. Seeing as he attempted to take out the standard-bearer of Kentucky Republicans in 2014, Matt Bevin shouldn’t expect much love from his own side. The Republican Governor’s Association recently cut all ad money flowing into the state, saying that Bevin wasn’t taking his campaign seriously enough. This is a huge blow to the Bevin campaign, as they already lacked the Conway campaign’s strong financing.

However, instead of shaping up and sticking to message in order to win back funding from the Republican Governor’s Association, Matt Bevin has gotten into a habit of coming late to his own fundraisers. This is exactly the kind of behavior that he needs to avoid in order to maximize his chances of winning the seat, but he doesn’t appear to care. Strangely enough, he’s said that he is already in the process of picking out who he’s going to hire as staff when he wins the seat.

Bevin has also released internal polls from his campaign that actually show him running behind Jack Conway. Because campaigns usually skew samples in order to show a favorable poll for their candidate, this has caused stir among both political parties in Kentucky. It appears as if what was once considered a solid pickup opportunity for Republicans is slowly slipping out of grasp.

On the Democratic side, Jack Conway appears to have learned his lesson from his last failure to win statewide office. He’s taken on a more moderate persona, and he’s purchased as much time on the airwaves as he can, where he’s conducted a steady assault against Bevin for paying his property taxes late ten times since 2002. His strategy is paying off, with polls showing him slightly ahead of Bevin, though both remain under the 50 percent threshold. There is also some very legitimate concern among the Conway camp that undecided voters are likely to break to Bevin as Election Day draws closer. This was the same force that led Alison Lundergan Grimes to her crushing defeat against Mitch McConnell in her 2014 Senate race.

In order to avoid a similar outcome, the Conway campaign is investing heavily in a field operation to turn out Democratic voters who might not otherwise show up. While this strategy has resulted in a boom-and-bust cycle for Democrats, yielding disappointing results in midterm years like 2014, even Republican turnout is highly depressed in odd-numbered election years. This has given Democrats hope that even small returns in increasing Democratic turnout could drastically alter the result of the election. TKO

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