Democratic Win in Kentucky Proves Candidates Still Matter

by Ryan Matsumoto November 6, 2019 · 10:37 AM EST

On Tuesday, voters in Kentucky headed to the polls to vote in elections for governor and other state executive offices. Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin 49.2 percent to 48.8 percent, a margin of just 5150 votes out of 1,442,622 votes cast.

Beshear declared victory on Election Night even though most major media outlets have not officially called the race, but the likely win is considered a big victory for Democrats in a state President Donald Trump won by 29.8 percentage points in 2016.
Beshear Made Big Gains in Urban/Suburban Kentucky
One way we can analyze Beshear’s win is by comparing margins of victory in each county to what they were in the previous gubernatorial election in 2015, when Bevin defeated Democrat Jack Conway by 8.7 percentage points.

Beshear outperformed Conway’s 2015 margins in 76 counties while underperforming in the remaining 44 counties.

Looking at the counties where Beshear most outperformed Conway, a clear pattern emerges: Beshear improved over Conway the most in heavily populated urban/suburban counties in major metropolitan areas. All of the 10 largest counties by population were in the top 35 performances for Beshear relative to 2015.

Beshear made huge gains in three northern Kentucky counties right outside Cincinnati. Boone County was the county where Beshear most outperformed Conway - Bevin won by 35 percent in 2015 but only 15 percent this year. The other two counties, Kenton and Campbell, actually flipped from Bevin in 2015 to Beshear in 2019. All three of these counties voted for Trump by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.

Beshear also did well in the two largest counties in the state. Jefferson, the largest county in the state, encompasses the city of Louisville and moved from Conway +20 to Beshear +35. The Democratic advantage in raw votes out of Jefferson more than doubled from 37805 in 2015 to 98772 in 2019. The second largest county in the state, Fayette, encompasses the city of Lexington and moved from Conway +15 to Beshear +33. Fayette is the county in Kentucky with the highest share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, reflecting the diploma divide that is increasingly defining political trends in the Trump era.

Beshear’s relative strength in suburban Kentucky extended to the Louisville suburbs. Oldham County, which has the highest median household income in the state, showed the third largest shift from 2015 to 2019, moving from Bevin +25 to Bevin +5.

Overall, Beshear’s performance in the cities and suburbs suggests that the education divide that has expanded during the Trump era is alive and well - and that Republicans still have room to fall among college-educated voters in suburban areas across America.

Republicans Did Well in Downballot Elections
Although Bevin lost the governor’s mansion, Republicans swept the other state executive elections on the ballot.

Four years after Beshear narrowly won the 2015 attorney General election, Republican David Cameron easily defeated Democrat Greg Stumbo 58 percent to 42 percent to flip the office. Cameron is considered a potential successor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans also flipped the Secretary of State office - Republican Michael Adams outpaced Democrat Heather French Henry 52 percent to 48 percent.

Republicans also easily won the other three statewide races on the ballot. They won races for Agriculture Commissioner, Auditor, and Treasurer with double-digit margins in all three.

Bevin may have underperformed his 2015 margin by 9 percentage points, but the other Republicans had a decent night. Republicans won by an average of 15 percentage points in the five non-Governor elections, up from 9 percentage points in 2015.

Overall, this suggests that Bevin’s loss was driven more by his personal unpopularity and low job approval numbers than the national political environment. Bevin faced criticism for his conservative policies on Medicaid expansion, abortion restrictions, and teacher pensions. Morning Consult’s poll even found that he was the most unpopular governor in the country, with 34 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving.

Inside Elections’ Vote Above Replacement score, which measures how well a candidate did in a given election compared to a typical candidate of their party, is -7.8 percent for Bevin.

Even though political polarization has been on the rise, candidates still matter, especially in state elections.

What This Means for 2020 and Beyond
While it may be tempting to draw conclusions about Kentucky’s competitiveness heading into 2020 from Beshear’s win, Kentucky is still a solid Republican state. 

The Inside Elections Baseline metric for Kentucky, which measures how a typical Democrat / Republican would be expected to perform, is 42 percent Democrat and 56 percent Republican. Even with Bevin’s high profile loss, Kentucky’s Baseline is virtually unchanged from after the 2018 elections because it incorporates the five races Republicans won on Tuesday.

As my Inside Elections colleague Leah Askarinam wrote, McConnell is unlikely to be vulnerable in 2020. Senate races are increasingly driven by the national political conversation, federal issues, and concern about which party is in control - that’s why we continue to have the race rated as Solid Republican.