A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Real winner of Tuesday’s election in Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin who wasn’t on ballot

The real winner emerging from Tuesday’s election in Kentucky wasn’t Rep. Andy Barr, who staged a come-from-behind victory in the Sixth Congressional District, or President “Tiny’’ Trump, who insisted to his supporters that this year’s vote was all about him.

Nope. The honor goes to someone who wasn’t even on the ballot – St. Matt of New Hampshire, our boy Bevin, the reigning governor, who now appears on a glide path toward a second term in 2019 despite the widespread, and understandable, notion that he’s a boob.

The evidence is clear. In the Sixth District centered in Lexington, Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired Marine colonel and fighter pilot, staged what can only be described as a perfect campaign. The first-time candidate, a fresh face, ran terrific ads that drew national attention, repressed any urge to go negative and hit all the right notes on health care, Social Security and other items important to residents in and around the region.

Her opponent, do-nothing Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, with his rear end firmly ensconced on the back bench in the House of Representatives, was on the wrong side of the health care debate, identified as the top concern of most voters in 2018, and saddled with the perception that he has done little in Washington DC over the past four years than take up space.

McGrath seemed well positioned. Her most ardent supporters, anti-Trump women incensed over his misogyny and other easily identifiable malevolent characteristics, were highly motivated and made their way to the polls in droves. With Lexington as its base, the Sixth is the second-most liberal district – or, if you prefer, the second-least conservative district – in Kentucky, behind only the Louisville-based Third, rendering it open to her candidacy.

The stars were aligned.

But Barr won, albeit by a razor-thin margin.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, celebrates after winning re-election on Tuesday. (Photo by Patti Longmire, Kentucky Today)

So the question before the bar goes something like this: If a Democrat can’t win in the Sixth District under these circumstances, where can such a candidate win in Kentucky other than Louisville? Western Kentucky? Eastern Kentucky where voters are still waiting for the return of “clean, beautiful coal’’ as promised by Trump?

Not a chance. The party, it seems has nowhere to go.

The McGrath loss isn’t the lone bad sign for Kentucky Democrats. The party was looking to make some healthy gains in the state house this go-round, reasoning that St. Matt’s alienation of the commonwealth’s underpaid and underappreciated teachers over the pensions issue would put it back in play as voters expressed scorn over the mistreatment of their local educators.

Didn’t happen. Despite strident efforts, projections indicate the Democrats will gain only two seats in the 100-member House. Republicans will retain a super-majority of 61-39. At the same time, Senate Republicans actually added to their majority, retaining control of all their seats that were up for grabs while Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, the Democratic Caucus Chairman, lost his. Republicans now maintain an overwhelming – and, if you were roaming the halls of the Capitol 30 years ago like yours truly – unbelievable 28 seats in the upper chamber to nine for the Democrats with one vacancy.

This is not a political map Kentucky Democrats can build on, at least not anytime soon. Excepting McGrath, the party couldn’t even dig up serviceable candidates to challenge the GOP incumbents in four of the commonwealth’s six congressional districts.

For crying out loud, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-SomewhereorotherLewisCounty, aka Wonderboy, considered something of an oddball even by the right wingers he hangs out with on Capitol Hill, won re-election with better than 62 percent of the vote. The Dems couldn’t find anyone in Kenton, Campbell or Boone counties to mount a challenge to a gadfly who lives almost 100 miles from the district’s largest, most influential region.

Mix it all up with a Morning Consult October poll, which places Trump’s approval rating in Kentucky at 56 percent and disapproval at 39 percent – only five states adore him more ardently – and even Pollyanna couldn’t find anything to be optimistic about.

Kentucky has become so red it has skipped the fire engine tint and run all the way to scarlet. Heck, it’s redder than Bloody Kansas, which now, by the way, has a Democratic woman governor-in-waiting.

The question, of course, becomes why has Kentucky embraced a Republican Party it practically snubbed until recently dating back all the way to the Civil War. Some analysts maintain a healthy if not spectacular local economy worked in the GOP’s favor this time around. But that ignores the tradition of the commonwealth’s electorate. Voters appreciate a solid economy, sure, but as Bevin’s election three years ago showed they are more likely to vote based on their values, which trend toward the conservative side.

I wrote this three years ago when Bevin won the governorship and it’s just as true today:

“There exists a strong feeling of place in Kentucky. And in many precincts, there exists a nagging perception that the culture is disappearing along with a desire to see that it is preserved. A statement left over from the beginnings of the Tea Party movement – “I want my country back’’ – continues to ring with the clarity of a bell in much of the commonwealth.

Folks are wary of movements like Black Lives Matter. They don’t much care for 11 million undocumented workers, many of them brown folks from Central America, passing over the border. Planned Parenthood is selling baby parts. Organizations want to confiscate their guns and church attendance is on a downward slide – the Pew Research Center just revealed that the percentage of those who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church has declined in recent years.’’

Given all that Kentucky voters continue to place their faith in Republicans. Trump, the grifter and certified liar, takes full advantage of those concerns. He visited Richmond on Barr’s behalf on Oct. 13 and went full demagogue on the searing immigration issue.

“Democrats want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all,” Trump said.

That’s the sort of statement, delivered to the right audience by the right person, that can turn elections. Kentucky, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate, is 87.8 percent white and many of the folks are wary of an invasion by brown people. Trump and others have convinced them that Democrats want to take their guns away and that abortion is an ongoing tragedy.

The culture issues continue to work in the GOP’s favor and there’s no reason to believe that ship is going to change course anytime soon. It all works in Bevin’s favor and Tuesday’s results have to be music to his ears.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: St. Matt is not very popular. Morning Consult issued a poll back in July showing that only 29.4 percent approved of his performance as governor while 56.5 percent disapproved. He is, according to the survey, more popular than only four other governors in the country.

But Kentucky is a more solidly Republican state than when he first assumed office. He’s unlikely to face any primary opposition of substance and you can bet, when the time comes, St. Matt will be thumping that Bible like Charlie Watts banging on the drums. And he will attract the same voters that propelled him into office in the first place.

The Democrats have a short and weak bench, the result of failing to promote younger activists to grab the spotlight.
Andy Barr displayed a beaming smile after prevailing on Tuesday night. But you can bet the biggest toothy grin in the Commonwealth that night belonged to St. Matt of New Hampshire. And he had reasons.

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