Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Unpacking the political fallout from Rowan County

Republican Matt Bevin, left, and Democrat Jack Conway, face off for governor in November.
Republican Matt Bevin, left, and Democrat Jack Conway, face off for governor in November.

On Thursday, a federal judge appointed by former President George W. Bush and raised by his conservative Republican U.S. Senator father put a Democratic county clerk in jail for refusing to follow the court's orders to issue marriage licenses.

So it's fair to say the politics of this saga are not quite black and white.

But we are well into September, and Election Day will be here in the blink of an eye. So here are some of the questions we're asking about what kind of impact the culture wars happening in Morehead will have on the race for governor.

■ Does this put Matt Bevin over the top, or is that how he is viewed?

It's an understatement to say the Republican gubernatorial nominee is jumping into the fray, defending Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, warning of religious persecution and blaming Democratic opponent Jack Conway and Gov. Steve Beshear for the whole ball of wax.

Bevin's attacks are relentless — he has issued more statements on this than anything else — but they often play loose with the truth. Will voters see him as a hero standing up for a persecuted Christian or a cheap political "East Coast con man" trying to win an election?

■ Has Conway said enough to keep his base intact?

With passions running just a tad hotter than the sun on Thursday afternoon, Conway issued a one-sentence statement in his official capacity as Kentucky's attorney general, saying that "we are a nation of laws, and no one can defy an order from a federal judge."

That falls pretty short of declaring victory for love and equality, which is what most liberal Democrats want to hear from their standard-bearer.

Will those Democrats — mostly in Lexington and Louisville — view this as necessary political jiu jitsu in a socially conservative state, or will they view Conway as a weakling, afraid to stand up for their beliefs?

■ Has Conway already said too much to win conservative Democrats?

If you have no moral objection to gambling, then go ahead and bet heavy on Republicans running an ad that features Conway's tearful 2014 news conference in which he announced he would not appeal a U.S. District Court ruling that Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

If conservative Democrats decide as a group that what happened Thursday in Ashland is federal overreach, then Conway could be who they take it out on in November.

■ Is Bevin accidentally helping Conway excite his base?

Conway's strategy is pretty simple: Make voters terrified of electing an unknown wild card like Bevin.

If liberal Democrats, who have always been lukewarm on Conway, view Bevin as a right-wing zealot, they might turn out for Conway just because they're afraid of Bevin. The Democrats whom Conway needs are far from inspired, but it's a base that can be motivated by fear and loathing of a conservative social-issues crusader.

To voters outside of Republican primaries, Bevin has been something of a question mark. But he is trying very hard to become the face of Davis' defenders, and that could excite Conway's base just as much as Bevin is hoping it will excite his.

■ Is this Drew Curtis' moment?

With less money and name ID than the two major-party candidates, independent candidate Drew Curtis has not gotten nearly as much attention as Bevin and Conway.

But if Conway's liberal base views their candidate as Republican-lite and libertarian Republicans think that Bevin is using a political stunt to stand up for a fellow politician over tax-paying citizens, Curtis could well be the beneficiary.

■ How is this being viewed by voters who aren't holding signs and megaphones?

The conservatives standing outside the courthouse are promising to punish Democratic attorney general nominee Andy Beshear for what they think is his father's unacceptable refusal to call a special legislative session to restructure the state's marriage licensing system. Guess what? They weren't going to vote for Beshear anyway.

The question is: How does it look to people who aren't registering their political views in Facebook posts all day?

It's not as cut and dried as it seems. Keep in mind that several Republican presidential candidates — Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Kentucky's own Rand Paul — are rallying around Davis, but others — Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Lindsey Graham — are saying that public officials should follow the laws of the land.

Heck, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't touch the issue with a 10-foot pole when the Herald-Leader asked him about it Thursday.

There are voters who see Davis as a martyr. And there are voters, including many Republicans, who think public officials can't refuse to do their jobs just because they don't agree with the law. What we don't know is how many voters are in each camp.

■ Has Kim Davis nationalized the election?

The conventional wisdom for a while now has been pretty simple: If Bevin can adequately execute Mitch McConnell's 2014 campaign playbook and nationalize the election, making it a referendum on President Barack Obama, then he will probably win.

On the other hand, if Conway can make it a choice between him and Bevin, whose habit of making false and contradictory statements has always undercut his strengths, then Conway has a chance of weathering the storm.

Given the intense national attention on Kim Davis — Huckabee says he is headed to Kentucky to stand with Davis next week — it's hard to imagine that the row in Rowan County doesn't help Bevin move voters' minds to a national place.

■ How long will this last?

The longer Davis sits in a Carter County jail cell, the worse it is for Conway. Bevin is enjoying daily opportunities to motivate his base and present a clear, if at times misleading, message.

Keep in mind that there are two other county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses, and really it's anybody's guess how Davis eventually gets out of jail or what she will do when that happens.

Regardless, this is not a story that will end in the next few days.

Time is running out before Election Day, and the longer the saga endures, the harder it will be for Conway to get voters to focus on state issues — jobs, education, pensions — and his opponent's flaws.

The bottom line is that we don't know how this will affect the fall elections.

It could be the first ripple in the water that becomes a wave that wipes out the entire Democratic slate. Or it could marginalize Bevin and make Conway look more palatable to the broader electorate.

It has been a quiet race so far, and the general consensus is that very few Kentuckians have been paying attention.

But given the attention this episode is generating, it seems a safe bet that voters will be tuned in from here on.

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