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Can A Republican Governor Lose In Kentucky?

Down the stretch they come! No, it’s not the Kentucky Derby — today, Kentuckians will vote for governor in their party primaries. Incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin will likely win renomination in the Republican contest despite being incredibly unpopular. But Democrats have a competitive three-way race between state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, state Attorney General Andy Beshear and former state auditor Adam Edelen. Beshear appears to be in the lead, but it’s unclear how big that lead really is and whether a Democrat can even still win a general election in a state that is now so deeply red.

Until Kentucky’s 2015 gubernatorial race, Democrats held most major statewide offices, and the GOP had won the governorship only once in the past 44 years. But Bevin won handily in 2015, and in 2016 Republicans captured the state house for the first time since the 1920s, giving them full control of state government.1 Thus, state politics now more closely align with Kentucky’s preferences in national races — the GOP presidential nominee has won Kentucky by at least 15 percentage points going back to 2000, and in 2016, President Trump won the state by 30 points.

All the same, Bevin (assuming he wins tonight) may still face a tough re-election fight next November. And that’s because he’s currently the most unpopular governor in the country, based on Morning Consult’s approval data for the first quarter of 2019.2 As you can see in the chart below, Bevin’s disapproval rating has been above 50 percent since the second quarter of 2018, which might have to do with his repeated run-ins with teachers, public sector unions and even his own party.

In April 2018, for example, Bevin vetoed legislation that raised taxes to expand public education spending only to have the Republican-controlled legislature override his veto while teachers rallied outside of the state capitol. He’s also made controversial comments, like when he said school closures allowing teachers to rally at the capitol may have caused children to be “sexually assaulted” or “physically harmed” because they couldn’t attend school.

Bevin’s approval numbers are even worse when you consider just how Republican-leaning Kentucky is. He had the worst approval rating of any governor relative to his state’s partisan lean,3 according to my colleague Nathaniel Rakich’s “Popularity Above Replacement Governor” rankings.

The latest ‘Popularity Above Replacement Governor’ scores

Governors’ net approval ratings for the first three months of 2019 relative to the partisan leans* of their states

Governor
State Name Party Net Approval state Partisan Lean PARG
KY Matt Bevin R -19 R+23 -42
RI Gina Raimondo D -11 D+26 -37
HI David Ige D +11 D+36 -25
WV Jim Justice R +14 R+30 -16
CT Ned Lamont D -4 D+11 -15
SD Kristi Noem R +18 R+31 -13
NY Andrew Cuomo D +9 D+22 -13
OR Kate Brown D -3 D+9 -12
CA Gavin Newsom D +12 D+24 -12
OK Kevin Stitt R +26 R+34 -8
UT Gary Herbert R +25 R+31 -6
NJ Phil Murphy D +8 D+13 -5
WY Mark Gordon R +43 R+47 -4
AK Mike Dunleavy R +12 R+15 -3
IL JB Pritzker D +11 D+13 -2
NE Pete Ricketts R +22 R+24 -2
IA Kim Reynolds R +6 R+6 0
ID Brad Little R +36 R+35 +1
NM Michelle Lujan Grisham D +8 D+7 +1
ND Doug Burgum R +34 R+33 +1
WA Jay Inslee D +15 D+12 +3
VA Ralph Northam D +5 EVEN +5
MO Mike Parson R +26 R+19 +7
IN Eric Holcomb R +27 R+18 +9
AR Asa Hutchinson R +34 R+24 +10
AZ Doug Ducey R +20 R+9 +11
OH Mike DeWine R +18 R+7 +11
DE John Carney D +26 D+14 +12
TN Bill Lee R +40 R+28 +12
MS Phil Bryant R +27 R+15 +12
GA Brian Kemp R +25 R+12 +13
ME Janet Mills D +20 D+5 +15
AL Kay Ivey R +44 R+27 +17
TX Greg Abbott R +34 R+17 +17
SC Henry McMaster R +34 R+17 +17
CO Jared Polis D +18 D+1 +17
MN Tim Walz D +21 D+2 +19
MI Gretchen Whitmer D +20 D+1 +19
NV Steve Sisolak D +19 R+1 +20
WI Tony Evers D +20 R+1 +21
PA Tom Wolf D +21 R+1 +22
NC Roy Cooper D +22 R+5 +27
FL Ron DeSantis R +34 R+5 +29
LA John Bel Edwards D +15 R+17 +32
NH Chris Sununu R +41 R+2 +39
MT Steve Bullock D +26 R+18 +44
KS Laura Kelly D +24 R+23 +47
VT Phil Scott R +32 D+24 +56
MD Larry Hogan R +57 D+23 +80
MA Charlie Baker R +59 D+29 +88

A Democratic governor with a net approval of +2 in an R+7 state has a PARG of +9 (2+7 = 9). If the same state had a Republican governor with the same approval rating, the PARG would be -5 (2-7= -5).

Shaded rows denote governors whose seats are up in 2019 or 2020, excluding those governors who are not seeking reelection.

* Partisan lean is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. The partisan leans here were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Sources: Morning Consult, media reports

A big part of Bevin’s problem is that he’s struggling with his base. Morning Consult found in that poll that just 50 percent of Republicans approved of him while 37 percent disapproved. Compare that to the 86 percent of Kentucky Republicans who approved of Trump, and it’s understandable that Bevin is now trying to tie himself to the president, hoping to boost his numbers.

One bit of positive news for Bevin is that he avoided a high-profile primary challenge when U.S. Rep. James Comer — who Bevin beat by just 83 votes for the GOP nomination in 2015 — decided not to run. However, Bevin didn’t escape a primary challenger altogether. State Rep. Robert Goforth is running against him and even loaned his campaign $750,000 (as of early May, Bevin had raised a little over $1 million). But Goforth doesn’t seem to pose a serious risk to Bevin, at least not according to the scant polling we have: A survey from earlier in May from the GOP pollster Cygnal found Bevin leading Goforth 56 percent to 18 percent. Still, 32 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they had an unfavorable view of Bevin in that poll, so Goforth’s share of the primary vote on Tuesday could be an indicator of how strong or weak Bevin is among the Republican faithful.

But today’s main event is the Democratic race. The front-runner is Andy Beshear, the first-term attorney general and political scion whose father Steve preceded Bevin as governor. The younger Beshear squeaked out a narrow 0.2-point victory in 2015, with Bevin winning by 9 points at the top of the ballot. Since they took office, the two have been at loggerheads over many issues, including education, health care and pensions. These fights are one of Beshear’s main selling points in the Democratic primary, but Adam Edelen is running to Beshear’s left, hoping his support for abortion rights, decriminalizing marijuana and renewable energy will attract Democratic voters. And on Saturday, the state’s largest newspaper, the Courier-Journal, endorsed Edelen.

Edelen, the former state auditor, has also been on the offensive, attacking Beshear for his connection to a former aide who was convicted of bribery (however, there is no evidence Beshear knew about these activities). Edelen’s upstart campaign has also been aided by an influx of cash from his wealthy running mate, Gill Holland, and Better Future PAC, an outside group backing Edelen (primarily funded by Holland’s mother-in-law).

Meanwhile, state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins is running to the right of Beshear and Edelen on social issues, claiming that his anti-abortion views and support for coal are more likely to appeal to the rural parts of the state where Democrats have been decimated in recent years.

Beshear currently seems to be ahead, but the only data we have are competing internal polls. Additionally, the two most recent surveys are from mid-April, so it’s hard to know if things have changed substantially in the past month. For what it’s worth, Edelen’s campaign found Beshear in first with 43 percent of the vote, Edelen in second with 23 percent and Adkins in third with 22 percent. Meanwhile, Beshear’s internal poll put him at 44 percent compared to 17 percent for Adkins and 16 percent for Edelen. So Beshear appears to be the polling front-runner, but a win by Edelen or Adkins shouldn’t be ruled out; internal polls are notoriously unreliable, the polling we do have is old and three-way races can be incredibly fluid.

Looking ahead to the general election in November, election handicappers view Kentucky as a toss-up or leaning in the GOP’s direction. Still, it’s possible a Democrat could take back the governor’s mansion. It’s early, but the pollster Mason-Dixon found Beshear up 48 percent to 40 percent in a Bevin-Beshear matchup in December. So if Bevin remains as unpopular as he is now, there could be an opening. Then again, the Bluegrass State’s politics are pretty darn red.

Footnotes

  1. Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 1999.

  2. Morning Consult first released quarterly approval data in 2017.

  3. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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