By Richard Livingstone
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the “off-year” election for the governor of Louisiana, the first of three close governor races in poor southern US states that heavily backed Trump three years ago.
The other two contests (Kentucky and Mississippi) take place tomorrow, with the run-off of the Louisiana race taking place in a fortnight. All three races look tight, although the Republicans look narrowly ahead in Mississippi. But Kentucky really does look to close to call.
Can the Democrats really win Kentucky?
If tomorrow’s election was a presidential race, the answer would be an emphatic NO. In 2016, Donald Trump took almost twice the number of votes here than Hillary Clinton did.
Hillary Clinton only won two of the state’s 120 counties. They were the state’s two most populous – Jefferson county based on the state’s largest city (Louisville) and Fayette based on its second largest (Lexington) and they account for about a quarter of the state’s population. Trump’s victory in some rural counties in the state’s southeast was staggering – a lead of over 80% in Jackson and Leslie counties.
2016 was a particularly large Republican victory in the state, but it was hardly unprecedented. In the fifteen Presidential elections since 1960, the Republicans have won Kentucky eleven times. The only times they have not were when southern Democrats became president – Johnson (1964), Carter (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996). We can almost certainly put the state down as a Republican hold in next year’s election too.
But the history in state level elections is very different. In the eighteen governor elections since World War II, the Democrats have won fifteen times, with Republican victories only in 1967, 2003 and 2015.
The graphic below shows what a Democratic victory looks like: Steve Beshear beat Republican David Williams by 20% in his 2011 re-election.
A quick look at the state
Kentucky is a state of 4.5 million people that is synonymous with horses, coal, bourbon whiskey and Bluegrass music. The state is largely rural, poor (average incomes are 20% less than the national average) and white (86% non-Hispanic white).
In national elections here, the Democrats have been hurt by the state’s small town values – including gun control in a state that prides itself on its frontier history – and views on carbon. Kentucky has a history as a coal state with extensive coalfields in both the Appalachian east of the state (beyond the Daniel Boone National Forest) and in the west (centred on Owensboro).
About half of the state live in the triangle formed by Louisville (locally pronounced Luhr-vul, not Loo-ee-ville or Lewis-ville), Lexington (a city so in love with horses that a huge paddock until recently formed the centre of its downtown) and the suburbs of Cincinnati at the northernmost part of the state. This in turn forms the northwest half of the Bluegrass region.
The next largest cities are much smaller: Bowling Green and Owensboro have populations a fifth the size of Lexington and a tenth that of Louisville. The eastern part of the state is even more sparsely populated: the largest town, Richmond, is half the size of Bowling Green.
In the political maps, we have split the state into four regions of over a million residents: Louisville (covering both the city and the suburban counties that form its metropolitan statistical area), Bluegrass (covering the Inner Bluegrass area centred on Lexington and includes the state capital Frankfort, as well as the northern parts of the Outer Bluegrass region stretching to the Cincinnati suburbs), East (the coalfields of the Cumberland Plateau, the Cumberland Valley and southern parts of the Outer Bluegrass region) and West (the western coalfield, Bowling Green and Elizabethtown areas, the Green Valley and the Jackson Purchase area west of the Tennessee River).
The Democrats usually win the Louisville region (winning the city itself whilst Republicans do better in the suburbs). Their next best region is the Bluegrass region, then the West. In each map on our graphics showing the regions (in the upper left) the percentage lead for the party (D for Democrat, R for Republican) in that election is shown.
The result last time
Pugnacious Republican Matt Bevin won the last gubernatorial election four years ago by a margin of almost 9%. Bevin’s election was seen by some commentators as a precursor for Trump, and he is often portrayed as the governor most similar to the President in his policies and approach.
Democrat Jack Conway (the state’s Attorney General) certainly did better than Clinton the following year: winning not only Louisville and Lexington but also Franklin county (around Frankfort), suburban Bourbon county and a number of rural counties. But Conway did not perform as well as needed in the urban parts of the state and Bevin’s campaign effectively turned out the Republican vote in the rural parts of the state.
Bevin has not tried to compromise his Trumpian style during his tenure as governor. Early on, he announced that he would stop Syrian refugees coming to the state. He has cut healthcare budgets, including for children, and other areas of public spending, particularly higher education. He has restricted abortion, made it easier to carry a concealed gun and declared both 2016 and 2017 as ‘The Year of The Bible’. During blizzards this January, he called schools closures a “sign that America is soft”.
This has not always endeared him to Kentuckians. In fact, he is one of the USA’s least popular governors: having a net approval rate of minus 17% in a state that still has a positive net approval rate of 15% for Donald Trump (despite his national unpopularity).
This makes tomorrow’s election interesting. The polling for the race has been fairly thin – just six in the last year – but it shows that the Democratic candidate Andy Beshear (the current state Attorney General and son of former Governor Steve Beshear) has a good chance.
A word of caution though: the latest poll (by Targoz Marketing Research) that shows a 19% lead by Beshear is by a newcomer polling company and is on a small sample size, whilst the two August polls were ones paid for by the Democrats.
The first round of the Louisiana governor race suggests that Republican voters are currently more motivated too: whilst incumbent Democratic governor topped the poll, the Republicans did better than expected as it seems that most undecideds backed their candidates, perhaps as a reaction to the Trump impeachment process.
So, we will wait and see what the outcome is of what promises to be a close contest.