Kentucky Voters Rejected Austerity

Kentucky public-school teachers pressure legislators to override Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s April 2018 veto of the state’s tax and budget bills. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Matt Bevin is, if nothing else, a confident man. For months, the erstwhile governor of Kentucky has said that he did not believe his own low approval rating. “Polls, schmolls,” he said in February. Even now, Bevin is a skeptic; he does not believe that the people of Kentucky have really removed him from office. He won’t concede the governor’s race to Andy Beshear, a Democrat. Instead, he’d like to speak to the manager — in this case, the state legislature — because a recanvass might uncover hidden votes in his favor. Experts believe it won’t. Even an adviser to Mitch McConnell has urged Bevin to concede.

Maybe anything is easier than the truth: Bevin lost his election because he was one of the most unpopular governors in the country. So unpopular, in fact, that not even an appearance with Donald Trump could save him. Bevin’s failure probably doesn’t indicate much about Trump’s own chances in Kentucky in 2020; Beshear was the only Democrat to win statewide office on Tuesday, which is hardly proof that voters have turned their backs on the GOP. But as narrow as Bevin’s loss might be, it has profound implications for both major parties. Bevin’s unpopularity wasn’t due just to his pugnacious personality. He was unpopular because of his policies. Bevin embraced a politics of austerity.

As a category, Republican governors, especially those in red states, tend not to be fond of public services. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, for instance, is waging a stiff battle to attach onerous work requirements to his state’s version of Medicaid expansion. But even by the standards of governors like Hutchinson, Bevin has been uniquely vocal in his pursuit of smaller government. He tried to apply his own work requirements to Medicaid, which would have saved the state government money — and put health care out of reach for thousands. A judge later stalled the plan, ruling that it clearly violated a core principle of the Medicaid program, which is to get health care to low-income people who need it. Bevin clarified the true extent of his enthusiasm for austerity in 2018. Working with Republican lawmakers, he tried to push through funding cuts that would have slashed millions from state university budgets and reduced teachers’ pension benefits. In response, teachers joined a national wave of walkouts, turning up in noisy droves to protest at the state Capitol. They had a “thug mentality,” Bevin complained. He said the walkout had left children vulnerable to drugs and sexual assault, which only infuriated teachers further. “Come November,” a retired Pike County band director told me at the time, “there will be some changes.” Eventually, she was right.

Perhaps Bevin should have listened to her. Maybe he should have at least listened to lawmakers from his own party, who at times prevented him from carrying out his more extreme objectives. When he vetoed an eventual bill that allocated new funds for public education, the Republican-dominated legislature voted to override him. Still, he pursued his white whale. Bevin never moderated, never altered his tone or his policy objectives. On an October trip to eastern Kentucky, recently a solidly Republican area, he accused protesting teachers of behaving like children. “Any child who acted this way in recess or in your schools, you would not accept it,” he told them.

The scapegoating didn’t work. It backfired, even in conservative areas of the state. Beshear may not have won Pike County in eastern Kentucky, but he won several other coal counties. Even in the rural counties he lost, he generally outperformed expectations and shrank Bevin’s margin of victory, which proved critical to his success. Beshear’s success in rural areas defies conventional logic about the priorities of the voters who live there. The Democrat is hardly a democratic socialist in the style of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but he’s not a conservative Blue Dog, either. He’s pro-labor, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ rights — a typical liberal. He wouldn’t be out of place in Massachusetts, or in Virginia, the new blue state next door. That liberalism should have cost him rural votes, if centrists like former Senator Claire McCaskill are to be believed. While it probably cost him many, it obviously didn’t sink his campaign, even in Bevin’s usual strongholds. Abortion isn’t a dealbreaker for rural voters. Nor is Beshear’s support for trans rights, despite fear-mongering from Bevin allies. Beshear has promised new education spending and raises for teachers. That, plus his pledge to strip work requirements from Medicaid expansion, may have mattered much more than the typical culture-war issues.

Kentucky Democrats have years of work ahead of them if they’re going to rebuild power in the state. Beshear barely won his race, and he benefited from name recognition; his father, Steve, was governor from 2007 to 2015. Future Democratic candidates for governor might not be able to command the same dynastic star power. (Arguably, it’s better for democracy if they can’t.)

They can, however, still learn something from Beshear’s race. So can Democrats in other Republican-dominated states and districts. As Bridget Read argued for the Cut, they don’t have to shy away from abortion rights. Republicans will call them baby-killers in any case. There’s another, less regressive strategy available. Years of cuts, of governmental neglect and worsening poverty, had pushed voters to the brink. Helped along by organized educators, the people of Kentucky rejected austerity. They might do it again, if Democrats give them a reason.

Matt Bevin Was Unpopular Because of His Policies