Values that drive voters will be the key as Kentuckians prepare to head to the polls

Published 6:03 am Wednesday, October 30, 2019

By Al Cross

By Al Cross

Contributing Columnist

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Gov. Matt Bevin told The New York Times that Tuesday’s election won’t be close – that he will beat Attorney General Andy Beshear by 6 to 10 percentage points. “I think you’re going to be shocked at how uncompetitive this actually is,” he told reporter Jonathan Martin, who has a knack for getting politicians to say what they think.

Bevin may have based his prediction on what happened four years ago when he beat Democrat Jack Conway by almost 9 points after trailing by 5 in the last public poll of the race, which was completed more than a week before Election Day. Conway, a two-term AG, was effectively the incumbent, and undecideds rarely break for the incumbent. Bevin had never held public office and was the outsider.

This time Bevin is the incumbent, so the election is largely a referendum on him, and there is broad agreement in Kentucky’s political community that the race is close – because he has been better at making enemies than friends.

The governor’s net-negative job rating has almost gone even lately, perhaps because more people are comparing him and Beshear. Bevin is counting on President Trump’s visit Monday night to put him over the top.

Beshear’s fundamental message is still “I’m not Matt Bevin,” and he has failed to develop much of a following of his own. In a low-interest, low-turnout election, he is counting on teachers to get their families, friends and neighbors to the polls, to get revenge for the things Bevin has said about educators.

But many of those folks are socially conservative, and many will vote on values, not vengeance. Many anti-Bevin voters won’t be motivated enough to go vote for Beshear, and those who are only mildly unfavorable to Bevin are more likely to be persuaded by his attacks on Beshear and his arguments on social issues.

Bevin is running hard against abortion, which has long been a top voting issue for many Kentuckians but has never received the emphasis from a gubernatorial nominee that it has from him.

Beshear says he supports the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and “reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions,” and notes that Bevin opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest – but he doesn’t raise the issue. The values he talks about are more general.

His latest ad begins, “I was raised with our Kentucky values. We treat everyone with respect, and we look out for our neighbors. Matt Bevin doesn’t share our values.” Some blunt audio clips of Bevin follow.

Beshear is running on civility, in a state that still seems enamored of a president who has made our politics less civil – and thus may have made Bevin’s behavior more acceptable. Beshear’s strategy seems counter-intuitive, but if he wins, it will be a bad sign for Trump, whose national support has been sinking under impeachment-related revelations.

Many see political and personal similarities in Bevin and the president, but Trump is fundamentally an entertainer, running a show and trying to maintain his cult of personality. Bevin is a deadly serious person, with little sense of showmanship, and seems to have more haters than followers.

But Trump dominates the political conversation in this country, perhaps more than any president in living memory, and Bevin has doubled down on their connection – putting up fresh ads with Trump praising him, and bringing Vice President Pence on Friday to the big Republican-majority counties of the Fifth Congressional District in an effort to boost turnout. Bevin lost every one of those counties to little-known state Rep. Robert Goforth in the May primary. It will be a key region to watch Tuesday night.

Turnout aside, Beshear’s chances depend on his ability to get votes from people who approve of Trump’s work and disapprove of Bevin’s. One of Beshear’s other recent ads features men who appear to be blue-collar workers who have soured on the governor. One says Bevin “cares about himself and his friends, who are literally putting us good, honest, hard-working people in harm’s way.”

In response, Republicans have resurrected the incautious comment Beshear made in Louisville shortly after the primary, when he said his campaign was part of the effort to “stop the negative policies of Donald Trump,” and making Beshear out to be part of the impeachment efforts of “socialists” and their “radical resistance,” a silly stretch but one that might work. One GOP ad says of Beshear, “He’s not protecting Kentucky’s values.”

So, the election may well come down to what sort of values drive voters, and which voters go to the polls. Much depends on turnout, and, in that contest, it’s the teachers vs. Trump. We know from last year’s 6th District race what he can do; we’re not sure what they can do. But they will be felt.

Go do your part, too.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.