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Can A Democrat Still Win The Kentucky Governor’s Race?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state, Kentucky, may elect a Democrat, Jack Conway, as governor on Tuesday. Conway leads Republican Matt Bevin by about 3 percentage points in the Huffington Post/Pollster aggregate and Real Clear Politics average of Kentucky gubernatorial polls. That may surprise some of you given that this is the same state that elected McConnell by over 15 percentage points last year and voted for Mitt Romney by over 22 percentage points in 2012.

But whether Conway wins or not, you shouldn’t be surprised if the race is as close as the polls suggest. There is an increasingly strong relationship between the presidential bent of a state and down-ticket ballot preferences; people are more likely to pick all Republicans or all Democrats. But voters are still willing to buck the party line in gubernatorial races much more so than in Senate elections.

You can see the lack of the relationship quite well by plotting the 2014 gubernatorial margin in a state1 versus the 2012 presidential margin.


There’s some correlation, but it’s not particularly strong. The 2012 presidential vote in a state explains only 36 percent of the variation in the 2014 gubernatorial margin.2 Voters in 12 states chose a governor opposite the party that won their state’s presidential contest two years earlier. Some of those were in swing states such as Florida (Republican Rick Scott) and Wisconsin (Republican Scott Walker), but many weren’t, including dark-blue Maryland (Republican Larry Hogan) and Massachusetts (Republican Charlie Baker). Nor was it just that Democratic states were choosing Republican governors. The normally Republican-leaning voters of Alaska tossed out incumbent Sean Parnell for the independent ticket of former Republican Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback barely won re-election in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 50 years.

The lack of nationalization in 2014 gubernatorial elections is in stark contrast to Senate races. Here’s the same chart as above but using the 2014 senatorial races instead of the gubernatorial ones.


The 2012 presidential results explain 76 percent of the variation in the 2014 senatorial results.3 There were the same number of Senate and governor races last year, but only three states voted for a senator from a different party than the candidate they chose in the 2012 presidential race. Two of those were swing states (Colorado and Iowa). Only Maine, by re-electing longtime Republican Sen. Susan Collins, really strayed from its 2012 presidential choice.

How could there be such a difference between the gubernatorial and senatorial voting patterns? The easy interpretation is that voters are smart. Senators work with the president, so an attack ad saying that a candidate is a rubber stamp for the [insert party] agenda holds a lot more weight in federal races. Governors don’t work with the president on most issues. They work with their state legislatures.

Indeed, voters separated their gubernatorial and presidential voting patterns in 2014 for state specific reasons. Voters in Maryland looked to Hogan in anger over high taxes by the previous Democratic administration, as did those in Illinois. In fact, Illinois elected a Republican governor even as its Democratic senator won re-election easily. Alaskans were upset over Parnell’s handling of oil taxes and his poor relationship with fellow Republicans in the legislature. Kansas voters felt betrayed by Brownback’s position on education funding and budget shortfalls.

Kentucky is a clear example of voters looking past their national allegiances. The state has elected just two Republican governors since World War II, even as it has become increasingly Republican on the national level. This year, Bevin (a tea party outsider who ran against McConnell in the Republican Senate primary last year) has made a number of missteps on the campaign trail and has alienated many members of the Republican establishment. He’s been tagged as too extreme, including on Kentucky’s relatively popular expansion of Medicaid. Meanwhile, Conway, the state’s attorney general, is the definition of smooth. So far, these factors have worked together to give Conway a lead, but one that is small enough that Bevin could win.

If Conway wins, he can be thankful that many voters are still willing to split their gubernatorial and presidential tickets.


  1. I’m including only contests in which both parties fielded a candidate and the two top vote-getters were the Democratic and Republican candidate.

  2. The 2008 presidential vote in a state explained 37 percent of the variation in the 2010 gubernatorial margin, so it’s not like 2014 was an anomaly.

  3. You’ll find a similar relationship if you look at the 2010 senatorial results and 2008 presidential results.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.