Kentucky primary voters set up a long-awaited gubernatorial grudge match for this November, as Democratic attorney general Andy Beshear turned back two challengers on Tuesday, and incumbent Republican governor Matt Bevin beat a single opponent with a bare majority.
The two men have battled incessantly on the airwaves and in the courts since Beshear was elected attorney general a year after Bevin’s election as governor. The AG is the son of Bevin’s predecessor as governor, Steve Beshear, whom Bevin and his appointees have accused of corruption. Bevin’s own less-than-scintillating personality and right-wing policies have earned him the distinction of being “America’s least popular governor” via quarterly survey ratings from Morning Consult (their latest, last month, gave Bevin a wretched job approval ratio of 33/52).
The incumbent’s weakness was illustrated by his underwhelming 52 percent showing against a little-known primary opponent, a self-funding freshman legislator, despite a last-minute tweeted endorsement from the president, who is much more popular in Kentucky than Bevin. Beshear didn’t win easily, either, as the New York Times observed:
Mr. Beshear survived a scare of his own in Tuesday’s primary. He won with about 38 percent of the ballots after splitting voters with another mainstream Democrat, the former state auditor Adam Edelen, and a conservative Democrat, State Representative Rocky Adkins …
Adkins is an old-school anti-abortion rural Democrat with some labor backing, and Edelen challenged Beshear from a more progressive perspective. In the end, the attorney general’s high name ID and combative stance toward Bevin was enough for the win. He will continue to blast the incumbent for a state pension “reform” proposal that provoked a teachers strike; for his efforts to gut a Medicaid expansion that was Steve Beshear’s signature accomplishment; and for support of the state’s extremist “heartbeat bill” seeking to ban most abortions.
Bevin will rely on Kentucky’s strong partisan lean, and on a campaign to treat both father and son as part of a corrupt and “entitled” multigenerational Beshear cabal. A deputy attorney general and longtime Democratic activist convicted of taking bribes from a lobbyist will be cited regularly.
Republicans figure Bevin can survive his personal unpopularity much as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has over the years. Bevin’s own statewide political career began with an unsuccessful challenge to McConnell in 2014.
A Beshear win in this red state would be touted nationally as a good sign for Democrats as they take on Bevin’s patron in the White House next year. Off-year gubernatorial elections will also be held in two other conservative states, Louisiana and Mississippi.