More than a week after Kentucky voters showed him the door, Republican governor Matt Bevin finally conceded defeat today. He waited until after a recanvass (basically just a math check of reported returns from the counties) predictably did nothing to decrease Democrat Andy Beshear’s 5,000-vote margin. But what happened between Election Night and today was potentially instructive for Republicans nationally who may have reason to come to grips with a 2020 presidential candidate who is reluctant to concede defeat.
Bevin based his initial refusal to concede on unspecified “irregularities” in the vote. Soon a leader in Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature indicated that perhaps that body would need to look into a contested election and decide the results:
Kentucky’s Senate President Robert Stivers suggested Tuesday night that the close race between Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic challenger Andy Beshear could ultimately be decided by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, sparking warnings that the GOP could attempt to “steal” the election.
“There’s less than one-half of 1 percent, as I understand, separating the governor and [Beshear],” Stivers, a Republican, told reporters after Beshear declared victory. “We will follow the letter of the law and what various processes determine.”
Stivers pointed to Section 90 of the Kentucky state Constitution, which says: “Contested elections for Governor and Lieutenant Governor shall be determined by both Houses of the General Assembly, according to such regulations as may be established by law.”
So if they let him, Bevin could essentially toss the election into the hands of his Republican allies simply by contesting the results without having to meet some threshold of evidence for anything untoward happening. But as the days went by and Bevin failed to corroborate his allegations, Kentucky Republicans lost any appetite they might have had for election-stealing. By the end of the week, Stivers was telling Bevin to pack it in, as the Hill reported:
Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers (R) said Gov. Matt Bevin (R) should concede the Bluegrass State’s razor-thin gubernatorial race if a recanvass confirms he fell short.
“It’s time to call it quits and go home, say he had a good four years and congratulate Gov.-elect Beshear,” Stivers said Friday in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal.
The dean of Kentucky Republicans, Mitch McConnell, probably delivered the coup de grâce to any Bevin election contest earlier this week:
I’m sorry Matt came up short, but he had a good four years and I think all indications are, barring some dramatic reversal on the recanvass, that we’ll have a different governor in three weeks.”
Asked whether Bevin should concede following the recanvass (he could take the matter to the state legislature, and contest the election results):
“I’m not going to give the governor advice about that. My first election was almost exactly the same number of votes that Beshear won by. We had a recanvass. They added them up, didn’t change, and we all moved on.”
Some Republicans even cited their own party’s rhetoric about the impeachment of Donald Trump representing a “coup” to argue that it wasn’t a good look for one of their own to refuse to accept defeat:
“For all the Republicans who scream and yell that we shouldn’t overturn an election with impeachment and removal of the president, they should feel exactly the same way about overturning an election for the governor’s race,” said state Rep. Adam Koenig (R).
Now let’s hope they hold that thought through November of 2020. After all, the president has been known to challenge the legitimacy of election returns he doesn’t like and allege unsubstantiated “voter fraud.” He famously claimed that a popular-vote victory in 2016 had been denied him because of massive illegal voting — without one scintilla of evidence. He’s forever talking about staying on in the White House beyond the expiration date of his presidency. Now perhaps he’s just joking or trolling or “owning the libs” when he does that; as someone rooted in the mid-20th century, I have little appreciation for fascist humor. In case he’s not kidding, and we get the close 2020 results most of us anticipate, it would be helpful to know that Republicans nationally would be as little inclined to help him pull a fast one as Kentucky Republicans proved to be when push came to shove.
Now it’s worth remembering that Matt Bevin is not a wildly popular figure among fellow Republicans (including Republican voters, as his defeat in this deep-red state showed). Because of their iron control over the legislature, losing the governorship was hardly a fatal blow to their ambitions and interests. The 2020 presidential election, by contrast, will be one of the highest-stakes contests in U.S. history, and in all likelihood, it will feel like it. At the current trajectory, by the fall of 2020 the atmosphere of partisan and ideological polarization in this country should roughly match that of Spain on the eve of its incredibly savage Civil War. Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.
It might be a good idea for leaders in both parties to get into the habit of making it clear that they will respect the 2020 election results. No, that does not mean the winner can never be impeached, as Republicans today absurdly argue; it just means a candidate winning a majority of the Electoral College should be duly inaugurated unless there is judicially recognized evidence of massive election tampering. And since it’s the putative GOP presidential candidate, not any of the Democrats running against him, who has made a habit of waving away any adverse signs of public disapprobation as “fake,” his party really needs to let the whole world know that he will be expected to leave office if he loses. Yes, it’s ridiculous to think that’s even necessary, but that’s where we are. And the developments in Kentucky over the last week have shown that people with power will always be tempted to cross lines to hold on to it, but also that they can be stopped.