A majority of Kentucky voters approves of the job their Democratic governor has done in Frankfort, but they're split closely on which political party they'll support when voting for a state House candidate this fall.
According to results of this week's Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll, Gov. Steve Beshear has a 54 percent approval rating, despite his unabashed implementation of a federal health care law that nearly half of Kentucky voters want to repeal.
Thirty-four percent said they disapprove of Beshear. Eleven percent weren't sure.
The poll, conducted by Survey USA in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, found that 49 percent of Kentuckians want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, compared with 44 percent who said they want to implement the law and fix it as needed.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky who studied the poll results, said voters are giving Beshear credit for evenhanded leadership during "truly awful economic times."
"What voters seek in a leader during a crisis is not flash, and not necessarily bold moves," Voss said. "Kentucky rode out the Great Recession relatively well compared to some of our neighboring states, and Beshear emerged from that period looking like a calm leader and capable steward for the state. Praise for how he implemented Obamacare has reinforced Beshear's image of modest competence."
Although the health care law doesn't appear to have severely damaged Beshear's popularity (he garnered a 64 percent approval rating in a Sept. 2012 Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll), it has been a millstone around the necks of other Democrats, and the issue could be a major factor in the November elections as Republicans try to take back the state House for the first time since 1921.
In a generic ballot question, this week's Bluegrass Poll of 1,082 registered voters found that Kentuckians narrowly prefer to elect a Democrat to the House over a Republican, with 40 percent choosing a Democrat and 37 percent choosing a Republican. That result is within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
A large swath of the overall polling sample, 23 percent, answered "neither" when asked whether they would vote for a Republican or a Democrat, suggesting that there are plenty of undecided voters for both parties to pursue over the next nine months.
Of the 100 seats in the House, 45 will be contested this year, and both parties are bullish about their chances for victory. Democrats now hold a 54-45 advantage in the House.
"This poll shows that while Kentucky voters typically go Republican in national elections, it's because they oppose President Obama and the policies supported by national Democratic leaders, not because the GOP brand has won their loyalty," Voss said. "Many Kentucky moderates vote Republican, but they do not think of themselves as Republicans. They are open to Democratic leaders with values and positions reasonably close to their own."
Voss cautioned against reading too much into the poll results, saying that "a generic ballot is about the closest you can get to tapping into the way people wish they could vote rather than how they'll actually vote after considering their specific choices."
Poll respondent Belva Thomason, a 61-year-old Republican from Caneyville, said in a follow-up interview that she will "probably go with the person" instead of their party.
"I'd have a hard time voting for a Democrat right now," she said. "I'm not real happy with Republicans either."
This fall, House Democratic candidates hope Beshear's popularity will help inoculate them from Republican efforts to paint them as lackeys of Obama.
Beshear's popularity crosses all regional and demographic lines, with the exception of party identification. The governor polls highest among black voters, getting high marks from 65 percent of those surveyed.
Beshear is in good standing with 68 percent of Democrats, 37 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents and those with "other" political affiliations.
"He has been able to project an image of moderation that sets him apart from unpopular national Democrats," Voss said. "It helps that he's in the Governor's Mansion, and therefore not grappling with many of the hot-button social issues that make the Democratic Party so unpopular with rural voters. A governor can focus on economic and budgetary concerns, areas in which Kentucky voters are not especially conservative."
Poll respondent Joanna Decker, 42, of Versailles, applauded Beshear for his efforts at criminal justice reform in 2011 and his implementation of the federal health care law.
"I think that he has taken a lot of political risks for the good of the state," Decker said. "They seem to be brave things and maybe not politically popular things, and they seem to have worked out pretty well."
Beshear's popularity in the state stands in stark contrast to the way Kentucky voters view Obama, who has repeatedly praised Beshear's implementation of the state's health care exchange and Medicaid expansion, including in last month's State of the Union address.
Beshear has a positive net job-approval margin of 20 percentage points, while Obama faces a negative net job-approval margin of 26 percentage points. Thirty-four percent of registered Kentucky voters approve of Obama, and 60 percent disapprove.
Voss said he used to think the health care law wouldn't affect state politicians because "voters will judge the national policy and the state policy differently."
"Now I'm just saying the same thing in the opposite direction: Voters can believe that Obamacare as a whole is a train wreck and still be impressed by how Beshear set up a state exchange that avoided all those national problems," he said.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.