It took nearly a century for Republicans in Kentucky to gain full control of the state government in Frankfort. Thanks to the autocratic tendencies and boorish attitude of Gov. Matt Bevin, their hold on all levers of power may be short-lived.
Earlier this week, Mason-Dixon released its first poll of this coming November’s Kentucky gubernatorial election, and it’s not looking good out the gate for Bevin. The first-termer trails his most likely opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, 48-40, while also trailing State Sen. Rocky Adkins, 42-41. It’s still early, and many have pointed out that Bevin trailed through most of his first election in 2015 before pulling it out in the end, and those things are both true. But the underlying numbers are troubling for Bevin and encouraging for Democrats.
Bevin’s struggles are not just a result of national dissatisfaction with Republicans or antipathy toward Donald Trump. Kentucky voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, then re-elected most GOP legislators in 2018 (though more on those numbers in a bit). Kentuckians just really hate Matt Bevin, who has paired assaults on working people with brash, venomous public remarks.
The governor has just a 38% approval rating, while 53% of Kentuckians disapprove of his performance in office. The dissatisfaction isn’t concentrated in cities and the more liberal parts of the state, either. While he’s the furthest underwater in the Louisville metropolitan area (31-60) and around Lexington (31-61), there is not a single region of the state where he’s above water. The closest he comes is 45-48 approval-disapproval in Western Kentucky. This is significant because Bevin took 106 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in 2015, winning rural voters as well as plenty of suburban and urban voters.
Bevin’s struggles are also not limited to the gender divide that has so defined American politics of late. He is overwhelmingly hated by women, with a 33-57 approval-to-disapproval spread, but men also are unhappy with his performance, with a 44-48 margin. In the 2018 midterms, men still supported the Republican Party, voting 51% for the GOP. Speaking of midterms, those are also instructive, though the lessons you take from the numbers really depend on how you want to interpret them.
In November, the GOP wound up holding on to its supermajorities and even expanded its hold on the State Senate. But the election was tighter than in years past, as Democrats cut a 16% popular vote deficit in half, finishing just 8 points behind the GOP. Amy McGrath came within a few points of toppling Rep. Andy Barr in a district that Trump had won by 15 points in 2016. States don’t suddenly go through a political sea change in just two years, so 2018 was a start that 2019 could continue.
Plus, Bevin himself wasn’t on the ballot in 2018, and he is far more unpopular than any state lawmaker or member of Congress. He has drawn the antipathy of people from all walks of life with his assault on working people and children over the last three years, which have gone under-reported compared to what’s happened in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Kentucky was one of the many states that saw teachers rise up and strike for better funding and pay, while slashing pensions. Bevin split from the Republican Party on this issue; he was downright nasty about it and vetoed funding increases passed by the legislature. Republicans in the legislature then overrode his veto, a rebuke to a governor of the same party. So even though a record 30 teachers ran for office in 2018, they weren’t running against the man who was trying to cut off education funding.
Bevin has spent much of his time in office making life difficult for regular working people in Kentucky. The list of offenses is straight out of the modern Republican playbook. He shut down the state’s wildly popular and successful Obamacare portal, Kynect, for no real reason other than being a miserable rich Tea Party misanthrope. He pushed through the wretched “right-to-work” law, which has led to a decline in unionized workers in the state. He spent all year trying to impose onerous, cruel work requirements on Medicaid, finally succeeding this fall.
Earlier this month, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled against the pension cuts that helped motivate the teacher strikes, which led Bevin to call a special lame duck session of legislature. It was an abject failure, ending in about 24 hours. The Supreme Court ruling was a big victory for Beshear, the state Attorney General, and perhaps a preview of the election to come in November 2019.
With Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder out of office (and both replaced by Democrats), we’re nearly rid of the rash of middle-of-the-decade Tea Party governors who wrecked their states. Bevin, a late addition, should be next.