Politics & Government

They dislike Bevin but voted for Trump. Can Beshear win them over in November?

Here’s what Andy Beshear told supporters after winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary

Andy Beshear speaks to supporters after winning the Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial primary at the C2 Event Venue in Louisville.
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Andy Beshear speaks to supporters after winning the Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial primary at the C2 Event Venue in Louisville.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear worked a small room of union leaders at the Capital Plaza Hotel Thursday afternoon. With his white shirt sleeves rolled up, he shook everyone’s hand and asked if they were ready for November’s election.

“I know we went into Tuesday with three strong tickets, each one supporting working families but as of today we are one family united to win in November,” Beshear said. “Let me say, it doesn’t matter where you were on Monday, we want you on this team because it’s the winning team and it’s the team that’s going to beat Matt Bevin.”

Beshear won a little more than 38 percent of the vote Tuesday in a competitive Democratic primary for governor, largely on the back of a strong showing in Kentucky’s two largest cities — Lexington and Louisville. To do so, he had to overcome a surge of rural Democrats who favored House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins.

The longtime state representative ran a campaign focused on the type of Democrat who has increasingly voted Republican in recent elections and racked up large margins in his home turf of Eastern Kentucky. It’s the same territory that went heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016 and Gov. Matt Bevin in 2015.

But on Tuesday, Bevin lost that region, too. At least 19 of the 31 counties that were lost by Bevin were won by Adkins.

Those counties are largely comprised of socially conservative voters, many of whom are either annoyed or angry at Bevin and could be tempted by a Democrat.

“There are a lot of people on both sides right now trying to figure out what they’re doing,” said Dan Mosley, the Democratic judge-executive in Harlan County.

Mosley said he knows Republicans and Democrats who say they’ll cross the aisle in November. He recalled talking to two teachers when he was campaigning last year, both of whom were upset with Bevin. But when he told them Beshear was running against the governor, they told him how much they disliked Beshear.

“I do think both candidates will have to sell voters, particularly here, on how their administration will help this region,” Mosley said.

Bevin has already painted the race in terms of contrast. He calls himself a conservative and Beshear a liberal. He says his ticket is anti-abortion rights and Beshear’s ticket is for them. He says he’s supported by Trump and Beshear voted for Hillary Clinton. (For his part, Beshear says the race is not about “right or left,” it’s about “right versus wrong.”)

After winning the Republican nomination in his re-election bid, Gov. Matt Bevin said he and Democrat Andy Beshear will offer Kentucky voters a "very clear and distinct choice to make."

“Anyone in elected office always every day has to earn and earn back and retain the votes, no question, take nothing for granted,” Bevin said Tuesday night. “And even now, while I am confident that we will win, because the marked difference is going to be so obvious to people, in no way, shape or form is that a given, not even remotely.”

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey is focused on 47.6 percent, the percentage of Republican voters who cast a ballot for someone other than Bevin in the primary. McGarvey said those people, the base of the Republican Party of Kentucky, went to the polls specifically to vote against the incumbent governor.

“That change has nothing to do with the social issues,” said McGarvey, of Louisville. “That has to do with people not liking how Frankfort is handling issues like education, issues like jobs, issues like health care.”

Bevin, though, still has the popularity of the president to help boost him. Trump won Kentucky by a larger percentage than he won Alabama in 2016.

“The president is still very popular in this region,” Mosley said. “And if he comes to Kentucky multiple times to campaign, I think it will certainly help [Bevin].”

Democrats, however, are clinging to the hope that people will separate Bevin from the larger Republican Party.

“People know the difference between Matt Bevin and Donald Trump,” McGarvey said. “He has attacked Kentucky teachers, he has cut Kentucky health care and he hasn’t built Kentucky infrastructure.”

Though Bevin admitted he may have to win those voters back (“Without question there are connections that need to be initiated and made for the first time, others that need to be reengaged with.”), Beshear must also convince them he’s a palatable option.

“I think it’s going to take time on the ground and in the trenches,” Adkins said Thursday. “The more personal contact [Beshear] can have with those who voted for me — to hear their concerns and to offer solutions that will make a positive difference — the more successful he will be in November.”

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Democratic Kentucky gubernatorial hopeful Rocky Adkins talks with the media after voting Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Morehead, Ky. The Kentucky House minority leader faces attorney general Andy Beshear and Adam Edlen in the democratic primary. John Flavell

Beshear — “never a wide-eyed liberal,” according to former State Treasurer Jonathan Miller — was pulled to the left during the Democratic primary by former Auditor Adam Edelen, particularly on abortion rights. On the final day of the campaign, Beshear received the endorsement of NARAL, a national abortion rights group.

The NARAL endorsement is already being used by Bevin in a state where 57 percent of people think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center.

“Certainly most Kentuckians are pro-life, but how do you define that?” Miller said, adding that he believes most Kentuckians support some exceptions to abortion restrictions. “Right now, the debate is shifting at the national level where those exceptions are being eliminated.”

The abortion issue has long been used to paint Democratic candidates as liberal. And while Democrats have dominated statewide races in Kentucky as recently as 2011, often those candidates were more socially conservative.

“I think there’s a base of Democratic voters that will support the nominee, but Rocky did represent a throwback to a more moderate Democrat Andy simply does not represent,” said Tres Watson, the former communications director for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “I think there will be people who will just clench their teeth and vote for Bevin.”

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