You Have To Win At Home: How Kentucky’s Governor’s Race Was Decided in The City, Not The Country

While the outcome of Tuesday night’s gubernatorial election in Kentucky was not expected, the reaction from much of the national media and the Democratic faithful has been regrettably predictable. In the wake of Tea Party darling Matt Bevin’s sound thumping of two-time state Attorney General Jack Conway, a state that was home to Obamacare’s most sterling healthcare exchange success story is now poised to shuffle 400,000 newly insured, low income Kentuckians off of its rolls and the hunt for a suitable scapegoat has begun. Given the stereotypes that often accompany outside perception of the region, it shouldn’t be surprising that much of the onus for Kentucky’s feared retreat into the company of the 22 GOP-controlled states to cravenly reject medicaid expansion in the name of political gain has been placed on the sizable Appalachian population located in the eastern portion of the state.

In his post mortem of the race, The Washington Post’s David Weigel placed the a good deal of the blame for the result on Appalachian populations in the state. While correct in his assertion that there were undoubtedly many low income Kentuckians who had voted for a candidate who wanted to take away their Medicaid benefits, Weigel followed that up by making a dubious connection between such behavior and Appalachian Kentucky in particular, saying that, “Bevin pulled some of his best numbers in Kentucky’s impoverished eastern counties, where enrollment had been highest.” If the subtext behind this analysis wasn’t clear from the get-go, the fact that Weigel brought in Thomas Frank, a man who made his name in large part by writing about low-income white Americans who would appear to vote against their best interests in his admittedly wonderful book, What’s The Matter With Kansas, to comment on how this was a “classic example” of impoverished folks doing just that, should allay any confusion.

This analysis, along with those of Esquire‘s Charles Pierce—who wrote that Kentuckians voted for Bevin because he, “mobilized the Kim Davis vote and spread enough Jeebus around that people (again) voted against their own best interests”—and others suggests that Matt Bevin was elected because poor, rural Kentuckians, and Appalachian Kentuckians in particular, were too stupid to know what was good for them. The only problem with this is that it isn’t the case.


Governor-Elect Matt Bevin campaigning at a Chick-Fil-A in Louisville on election Day (Photo Credit: David Stephenson/Associated Press

Looking at the returns from last night compared with those from Governor Beshear’s successful re-election bid in 2011, the pattern that emerges isn’t one of mutiny by Appalachian Democrats, but of a total failure by Conway to arouse voter interest and horrible showings in the state’s urban and suburban areas. In reality, Conway did better in Appalachian Kentucky than he did practically anywhere else in the state on Tuesday, with 6 of his 14 county wins coming in the region and another 5 counties being decided by single digit margins. Ironically enough, despite Bevin’s mobiliaztion of the “Kim Davis vote” that Pierce mentions, the Democratic candidate still managed to pick up Rowan County, where Davis resides. To be sure, the fact that Conway lost traditionally blue areas in the east like Pike and Greenup counties hurt his chances at re-election, but didn’t have the biggest effect on his loss as the vote totals out there are pretty small, with most counties seeing turnouts of between 1,000 and 5,000 voters.

No, the places where Conway was dealt his defeat on Tuesday were not in rural areas, but in the cities where he was expected to cleanup. In Jefferson County, where Louisville is situated, Matt Bevin picked up more than 30,000 more votes than his Republican predecessor1, while Conway only improved on Beshear’s 2011 showing by a less than 4,500 votes. Combine that with their showings in the 8 other counties that make up the Louisville-Jefferson County Metropolitan Statistical Area and you wind up with a net loss of 48,838 votes for the Democrats. In Northern Kentucky, 2011 was a banner year for the Democrats, with Beshear taking 7 out of 8 counties in a region where roughly 65% of voters would wind up pulling the lever for Mitt Romney. Fast forward to 2015 and those numbers had flipped, with Conway only managing to win 1 Northern Kentucky county and suffering a net loss of nearly 23,000 votes. Combine those two with the vote totals from the counties with Kentucky’s 2nd and 3rd biggest cities, Fayette County (Lexington) and Warren County (Bowling Green), and the net loss for Democrats between 2011 and 2015 was 85,782 votes. Matt Bevin won Kentucky’s gubernatorial race by a margin of 84,787 votes.

If folks want to castigate Appalachian Kentuckians for losing control of the governor’s mansion for the Democrats in Kentucky you can, but they will be directing their energies towards a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. The fact of the matter is that Matt Bevin out-campaigned Jack Conway and raised enthusiasm about an election that Kentucky Democrats didn’t seem to care much about. Like Allison Lundergan Grimes the year before, Conway and the Democratic party spent most of their energies trying to dissociate themselves from President Obama and attacking their GOP opponent instead of playing up their successes and outlining their vision for taking care of all Kentuckians. The Republican establishment was biting their nails off over Bevin’s campaign and all his perceived flubs, but in actuality, Bevin ran the race he had to run. He trekked up and down and across the state to speak with voters, opportunistically jumping on conservative hot button issues like Kim Davis’s “stand” against same sex marriage and pillorying President Obama in order to turn a state election into something approaching a referendum on the nation’s politics as a whole. As for Conway, he proved to be little more than a liberal retread—Governor Beshear minus the charisma and folksy charm.

Matt Bevin wasn’t elected governor of Kentucky because of the ignorance of rural Kentuckians. Matt Bevin was elected governor of Kentucky because of the reticence of Kentucky’s Democratic party to do anything but play defense and hope for the best.


1If you would like to see the raw data I compiled for this piece, click here and it will take you to a Google Doc with that information.

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