More Democratic Losses Could Be on the Horizon

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 30, 2015 · 2:00 PM EDT

For Democrats anxious to turn the page from a terrible 2014 cycle, the news might get worse before it gets better.

Last fall, Democrats lost control of the Senate and fell further into the minority in the House, but pinned much of the blame on low turnout in the midterm elections. Party strategists were more than ready to look ahead to 2016, when the presidential race should boost turnout among Democratic constituencies. But at least one race this fall could dampen some of the Democratic enthusiasm heading into next year.

Democrats should have the advantage in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race in November, given that term-limited Gov. Steven L. Beshear is popular and Democrats have held the governorship for all but four of the past 43 years. The party has rallied behind Jack Conway, the telegenic state attorney general with two statewide victories under his belt, while Republicans have a divided party. Matt Bevin won a competitive GOP primary but is despised by some Republicans for challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell last year. And Republicans just installed a new state party chairman, fewer than four months before Election Day.

For all of those reasons, it was widely assumed that Democrats had the upper hand in the race. But there is some evidence that Democrats are at risk of losing in Kentucky, including a public poll which showed Bevin with a slight advantage.

According to a June 18-21 automated survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, Bevin had a 40 percent to 38 percent edge over Conway in a two-way general-election matchup. What might have been more surprising was the candidates’ favorable numbers. Bevin had a 31 percent favorable/28 percent unfavorable rating compared to 31 percent favorable/34 percent unfavorable rating for Conway.

Because of Bevin’s challenge to McConnell, the Republican’s reputation appears to be worse inside the Beltway than it is in Kentucky.

“Bevin is a better candidate than people are giving him credit for,” cautioned one Democratic operative who has done extensive work in Kentucky.

And while Beshear is popular, President Barack Obama’s numbers continue to be terrible in Kentucky. He had a 33 percent job approval/60 percent disapproval in the PPP survey.

Democrats are hoping voters continue to bifurcate state races from federal races, but this race will test that tradition. Multiple party strategists also believe Bevin is currently benefiting from two years of television ads, while Conway hasn’t been on TV since his re-election race four years ago. Bevin made it through this year’s primary largely unscathed while two of his opponents attacked each other.

Now, both parties are up with television ads, but the race should get even more attention on Aug. 1 at Fancy Farm, when candidates, operatives and reporters gather for the state’s annual political picnic.

Democrats are confident that Conway’s standing will improve after the party educates voters, specifically for not disclosing his personal tax returns and being delinquent on some business taxes. But even though Bevin isn’t an establishment favorite, the Republican Governors Association is on television with an ad pairing Conway with Obama.

“What happens after Labor Day will be a better indicator of where the race and the fate of the two parties in Kentucky are heading,” according to Kentucky-based Democratic strategist Dale Emmons.

But Bevin starts the general election in better shape than many expected, and Conway has not been as strong as most assumed. The bulk of the campaign is still to come, but we are changing our rating of the race from Tossup/Tilt Democratic to pure Tossup. And if Democratic attacks don’t start to stick to Bevin, the race could start to look even better for the GOP.

Losing the gubernatorial race still wouldn’t compare to the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats losing in the semifinal of the Final Four basketball tournament in April, but it would be a stinging defeat. Democrats have lost just two gubernatorial races since World War II, 1967 and 2003, when outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton left office in scandal.

If it happens again, Democrats are likely to blame Conway for being a weak candidate instead of drawing a broader conclusion about the president’s or the party’s standing. Conway’s detractors say he’s not as moderate as Beshear and that he sounds like he’s from East Louisville. Kentuckians haven’t elected a governor from Louisville since the mid-1950s, but Bevin is from New England and lives in Louisville as well.

Democrats might explain away a gubernatorial loss, but the races in Kentucky this year will have an impact on next year. The party will immediately look to one of November’s winners (or losers) to run for Senate in case GOP Sen. Rand Paul is unable to appear on the ballot. But the filing deadline for federal candidates is Jan. 26, before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and likely before it is clear whether Paul is a presidential contender or pretender.

Just like any off-year election, the winning party will trumpet the results as a sign of things to come while the losing party will dismiss it as an aberration. In the case of Kentucky, Democrats shouldn’t dismiss the weight of Obama’s job approval rating on their nominee, but next year should also feature the higher turnout the party was expecting.