A few hours after polls closed at a criminally early 6 p.m. in Kentucky Tuesday, it became clear that the state’s next governor will be a Democrat. With 100 percent of the vote in, Attorney General Andy Beshear has 4,658 more votes than Governor Matt Bevin, a narrow enough margin that the incumbent is refusing to concede, but a big enough margin that there’s virtually no chance the result will change.
For those watching from afar, it may seem like a shocking result. Kentucky, a deep-red state where Donald Trump won by nearly 30 points in 2016, had just rejected a Republican governor and Trump sycophant, even after the president made an election eve flyby to push Bevin over the finish line. Surely this means Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, who’s also up for reelection next year, are in trouble in 2020, right?
Don’t get too excited. More than anything else, Matt Bevin’s loss was about Matt Bevin. For four years, the New Hampshire–raised millionaire has made enemies across the state of Kentucky. Most notably, he’s repeatedly tangled with educators by threatening their pensions, cutting education funding, and lobbing callous insults about their commitment and priorities. With Bevin in office, educators organized under the banner of Kentucky 120 United, a grassroots advocacy group that called for sick-outs and staged massive protests in Frankfort over the past two years. It seems they lived up to their rally cry: “Remember in November.”
Bevin also had a less vocal but potentially more fatal enemy: the members of his own party who came out against him. He feuded with his lieutenant governor, who was replaced on the ticket this year, and saw several state Republicans endorse Beshear over him. Despite his desperate attempts to tie himself to Trump, Bevin’s approval rating has lagged far behind the president’s in Kentucky. At last check, Morning Consult found 34 percent approval for Bevin and 56 percent for Trump. Clearly, many Republicans just don’t like the guy.
That was made abundantly clear Tuesday night as the results for down-ballot races came in with a Republican winning every single one. Kentucky voters reelected incumbent Republicans as auditor, treasurer, and agriculture commissioner. They also chose Republicans for attorney general and secretary of State, two posts currently held by departing Democrats.
For anyone looking for a narrative in Kentucky’s election Tuesday, these results suggest it’s not about Republicans losing ground in a red state. Instead, it’s about one Republican who inspired thousands of voters to cross party lines just to vote against him.
Could Mitch McConnell inspire the same next year? Like Bevin, his approval rating is abysmal (37 percent), but unlike Bevin, he’s been around for a while. People may not like McConnell, but few would call him a bully, a word so often applied to the governor that Democrats held a statewide “Won’t Be Bullied by Bevin” tour this year. McConnell will also have the advantage of Trump appearing on the ballot with him next year.
Before the eyes of Kentuckians turn to 2020, though, they’ll have to wait for the 2019 election to be fully resolved. With Bevin refusing to concede, the likely next step is a recanvass, or a simple re-tally of votes from each of the state’s precincts. If that still doesn’t satisfy Bevin, he can contest the election, which could get messy fast. And if the past four years are any indication, Bevin wouldn’t go out any other way.