Takeaways from Kentucky’s primary election and a look ahead to Beshear vs. Bevin

Attorney General Andy Beshear celebrated his win in the Democratic primary for governor Tuesday night | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

Tuesday’s primary election for governor has set the stage for yet another battle between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear this fall — only this time the voters of Kentucky will determine the winner, not judges in Frankfort.

While Bevin and Beshear each won their respective parties’ primaries, neither breezed by with an easy victory. Bevin struggled to gain a majority of votes against a little-known freshman state legislator, while Beshear received 38% of the vote among Democrats in a competitive and bruising three-way race against Rocky Adkins and Adam Edelen.

What the primary election results show is that both Bevin and Beshear inherit a party that is heavily fractured along regional lines and not yet unified behind their nominee this fall, requiring significant work to get key areas of their voting base on board for the general election campaign.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the primary results.

48% of Republican voters send a message to Bevin

On the morning of the election, President Donald Trump tweeted out a call for Republicans in Kentucky to vote for Bevin that day — invaluable get-out-the-vote assistance to Bevin from the man who won 63% of the vote in the state in the 2016 election and has favorable ratings approaching 90% among his party.

However, only 9.5% of registered Republican voters in Kentucky heeded that call and cast their vote for Bevin on Tuesday, while 8.6% of the party’s members went to their polling station and cast a vote for one of the governor’s three Republican opponents.

Bevin finished the night with 52.3% of the vote in the GOP primary, while Robert Goforth — a political newcomer serving his first full term in the state House this year — ended up with over 100,000 Republican votes, amounting to 39% of those cast. Two more Republican candidates who ran extremely limited campaigns together picked up another 8.6% of the party’s votes.

While Goforth did provide his self-funded campaign a $750,000 check shortly after announcing his run in January, publicly available reports show that he barely spent over a third of those funds on television and radio ads and was still far outspent by the campaign of the incumbent Republican governor.

Goforth’s limited campaign heavily relied on attacking Bevin for his rhetoric against teachers and support for charter schools, casting him as an out-of-touch elitist from New England. Whether or not it was this message or a general underlying dislike that a good portion of the state’s Republicans have for Bevin — polls have shown that roughly a third of the party has an unfavorable view of him — 48% of primary voters let the governor know how they felt.

While Bevin managed to win over 50% of the vote in the majority of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Goforth placed first in a swath of 31 counties stretching from coal country in eastern Kentucky through rural counties along the southern border. Additionally, in only 39% of counties statewide did Bevin have a margin of victory over Goforth totaling more than 200 votes.

Goforth’s margin of victory approached blowout levels in several of those counties, and not just his hometown of Jackson County where he received 72.7% of the vote, as he picked up over 60% of the vote in 11 counties.

Counties that voted for Bevin in the Republican primary are in green, while those in teal voted for Goforth | Via Kentucky Secretary of State

Despite this underwhelming performance, can Bevin win back some of those Goforth voters in the fall, along with Democrats and independents in these rural counties where Republican candidates have increasingly dominated Democrats over the past decade?

Bevin’s effort to win them back will likely lean heavily on Trump, urging the president to visit the state and rally for Bevin — or perhaps even more effectively, against Beshear. They are expected to also try to nationalize the race and tie Beshear to unpopular Democratic figures, taking the focus off of the issues many have with an unpopular Bevin.

If that is the strategy, Tuesday’s results on the Democratic side show that Beshear is already vulnerable in eastern Kentucky among his own party, where voters flocked to Adkins.

The rural/urban divide among Kentucky Democrats intensifies

Though the Beshear campaign’s internal pollster showed the attorney general up nearly 30 percentage points on both Adkins and Edelen last month, Tuesday’s results show that the race significantly tightened toward the end, with his 37.9 percent of the vote besting Adkins’ 31.9% and Edelen’s 27.9%.

The county-by-county results show that Beshear was able to separate himself from the field by winning significant victories in Jefferson and Fayette County, the two most-populous counties that both had relatively huge turnout among Democrats of 28% and 30%, respectively.

Edelen’s campaign strategy for the primary election banked on winning these two counties — which made up 34% of all Democratic voters on Tuesday — by a solid margin, but Beshear wound up beating Edelen by 7 percentage points in Louisville and 10 percentage points in Lexington.

Due to the large turnout in these two urban areas, Beshear was able to build up massive vote margins over his nearest statewide competitor Adkins, beating the longtime state legislator from Elliott County by 36,775 votes in Louisville and 7,848 votes in Lexington.

Beshear also won midsized counties in northern Kentucky and those where Paducah, Owensboro and Bowling Green are located in the west, but Adkins absolutely dominated Beshear in eastern Kentucky — exposing what may again serve as a Democratic candidate’s weakness this fall.

In the 40 counties that are entirely east of Interstate 75, Adkins won 37 of them, receiving a whopping 68.5% of the vote. On the other hand, Beshear only won three counties and received just 17.6% of the vote — 37,730 votes less than Adkins.

Counties won by Adkins are in green, Beshear in teal and Edelen in light blue | Via Kentucky Secretary of State

Adkins and his supporters had argued that he was the only candidate with the conservative policy positions and authenticity to be able to compete with Bevin in eastern Kentucky, though he said in his concession speech on Tuesday that he would do everything he could to help Beshear campaign effectively in the region.

On the flip side of that, if Adkins had been able to pull off a close victory on Tuesday, his extremely poor showing in Louisville — where he only received 10% of the vote, just shy of 10,000 among the city’s 345,000 registered Democrats — may have doomed his ability to beat Bevin by building up large vote margins in urban areas.

African Americans sided with Beshear over Edelen

The campaigns of both Beshear and Edelen made an effort to win over and turnout out African-American voters in Louisville’s West End, and the results show that like most of the primary election events on Tuesday, Beshear was victorious.

The interactive map below shows that while Edelen performed the strongest and Beshear the poorest around the mostly white and liberal area surrounding the Highlands neighborhood, Beshear had his largest margins of victory in the West End.

Beshear picked up at least two-thirds of the vote in many of the precincts stretching west from downtown through Shawnee and Chickasaw, then extending south through Shively.

Beshear won 408 of Louisville’s 623 precincts, while Adkins only won one tiny precinct in south Louisville, where he received four votes to Beshear’s three and Edelen’s two.

Edelen, whose campaign far outspent both Beshear and Adkins — thanks to at least $2.5 million loaned by his running mate, Gill Holland — and focused heavily on winning Louisville by a wide margin, ended up winning 214 precincts and 40% of the vote in Louisville.

Interactive map of Louisville created by civic data analyst Pat Smith.

This story has been updated to reflect Beshear’s margin over Edelen as percentage points.