The race between Attorney General Andy Beshear and Gov. Matt Bevin has a lot of themes and narratives that mirror what is happening in politics nationally.
Indeed, this campaign in Kentucky is likely to be something of a preview of the 2020 presidential race, particularly if Joe Biden (or one of the other white male Democratic candidates who are not as liberal as Bernie Sanders) is facing President Trump. There is precedent: Consider Bevin’s surprising win in 2015 over Jack Conway for governor of Kentucky and a year later, Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton for president.
Let’s look at the parallels between this race in Kentucky and the presidential contest, from the perspectives of each party:
Most paths to the Democrats winning the White House include them carrying Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states Barack Obama won in 2012 but flipped to Trump in 2016. Some political analysts are already describing Wisconsin as the state to watch in 2020 — with the candidate winning the Badger State likely to be elected president.
Wisconsin and Kentucky are obviously different states in terms of politics — Kentucky is about 15 percentage points more Republican-leaning than Wisconsin, for one.
But the states have important demographic similarities. Both are neither big nor tiny (Wisconsin has 5.8 million people, compared to Kentucky’s 4.5 million, according to U.S. Census data). The population in both states is significantly more white than the country overall. (The U.S. is about 60 percent white, 18 percent Latino, 13 percent black, 6 percent Asian. Kentucky is 84 percent white, 8 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 2 percent Asian. Wisconsin is 81 percent white, 7 percent black, 7 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian.)
Both states have one big metro area with a large black population (Louisville, Milwaukee), a second midsized metro area centered around the state’s flagship university (Lexington, Madison) and then lots of much smaller towns. About 45 percent of American voters are white people without college degrees (a group that generally leans toward Republicans), but around 60 percent of voters in both states are white people without college degrees.
All of that is to say, for a Democratic candidate to win in Kentucky or Wisconsin, he or she almost certainly has to win substantial support from some voters who have at least one of these three characteristics: 1. lives in a rural area; 2. is a white person without a college degree; or 3. voted for Trump in 2016. A candidate who is only strong among 1. voters in urban areas; 2. whites with college degrees; and 3. blacks and other nonwhite voters (the key parts of the traditional Democratic base) will struggle in either state.
For example, in his successful 2015 run for attorney general, Beshear won Pike County (97 percent white, 13 percent of residents have a college degree). Trump won the county by 63 percentage points, not a typo, in 2016.
In 2018, Democrat Tony Evers won the governor’s race in Wisconsin in part by getting around 40 percent support among white voters without degrees, compared to Hillary Clinton winning about 34 percent of that bloc in 2016, when she lost Wisconsin to Trump, according to exit polls.
So how does a Democrat trying to win Kentucky or Wisconsin sound? Maybe a little cautious — particularly around racial issues.
In the wake of Trump’s recent tweets calling for a group of female black and Latino members of Congress to “go back” to their home countries, Beshear was asked if he felt the tweets were racist. The attorney general called the tweets “wrong” and “ugly,” but ducked the term racist. Some Kentucky liberals were very critical of this approach, arguing Beshear was not being straightforward or direct.
But there was some political logic to Beshear not using that word. Calling Trump’s remarks racist is likely to be viewed by some Kentucky voters as suggesting the president is a racist person and perhaps some of the people who voted for him are racist as well.
Beshear, to win, probably needs the votes of some who backed Trump in 2016. He definitely needs the votes of people who have relatives who voted for Trump or live in counties where most people voted for Trump.
A rough estimate of Beshear’s coalition, if he wins, would be 80 percent white voters, 20 percent nonwhite (mostly black) voters, 33 percent from Louisville/Lexington, 66 percent from the rest of the state.
Using the word racist and satisfying more liberal white people and African Americans in the Louisville area may not be worth the downside of offending potential white swing voters in the less liberal and urban parts of the state.
It’s not just the word “racist” that Beshear is trying to avoid. He has so far largely campaigned on jobs, health care and education. I would expect him to try to avoid veering into more divisive subjects that some liberals want the Democratic presidential candidates to speak about like providing reparations to compensate black Americans whose ancestors suffered from slavery or Jim Crow-era discrimination.
Beshear’s essential campaign message (and this includes choosing Jacqueline Coleman, an assistant principal at a high school in Bardstown, as his running mate) is, “I will not be mean to anyone, especially teachers.” This is not exactly an inspiring policy vision. But Beshear’s campaign is in many ways not about what he will do as governor, but what he will not do: act like Bevin.
Of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Joe Biden is most clearly taking an approach like Beshear’s on the national stage. He emphasizes pocketbook issues like health care. He tries not to take very liberal stands on subjects like immigration.
Biden’s campaign is largely about getting rid of Trump and returning normalcy to Washington, in contrast to Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who are proposing more aggressive policy changes.
Biden’s bet, like Beshear’s, seems to be that voters, even some who are more conservative on issues, are particularly bothered by the bombastic style of Trump and Bevin and just want those Republicans out of their daily lives.
It’s also worth noting two other similarities between Beshear and Biden, in the context of this election cycle. Both are white men, which may result in voters perceiving them as less left-leaning than say, how Stacey Abrams was viewed during her gubernatorial campaign in Georgia or Kamala Harris is now as a presidential candidate.
Biden is also running to some extent as the heir of a popular Democratic political brand (the Obama-Biden presidency), much like Beshear (his father Steve’s governorship.)
The parallels between Trump as president and Bevin as governor are obvious: down-the-line conservative policies, at-times-over-the-top attacks on critics and rivals and aggressive attempts to question the values of institutions like the judiciary and the media.
They are campaigning for reelection in similar ways, too. Like Trump, Bevin is emphasizing a strong economy under his leadership. The jobless rate in Kentucky has decreased from 5.3 percent in December 2015, when Bevin took over, to 4.1 percent now (there are always legitimate questions to be raised about what credit, if any, politicians should get for economic growth. Moreover, the unemployment rate was declining under Steve Beshear’s leadership, too.)
Secondly, Bevin and GOP-affliated groups supporting his campaign, like Trump and national Republicans, are focusing on issues like abortion and immigration of which Beshear is wary.
For example, the governor recently proposed a provision that would bar Kentucky towns from becoming “sanctuary cities” and not cooperating with federal immigrant authorities. (Louisville has taken great effort to ensure it is not labeled a sanctuary city by the Trump administration.) But the Bevin-backed legislation would likely invalidate an ordinance adopted by Louisville’s government in 2017 that says the city’s police can only assist federal immigration enforcement agents if there is a signed warrant from a judge or federal officials can claim a “clear danger to the public.”
And third, Trump and Bevin, both with low approval ratings, are trying to drag their opponents down to their level — essentially forcing voters to choose between two unpopular candidates. For Trump, with the Democratic nominee not yet chosen, the tactic is to promote ultra-liberal Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and suggest that politicians like her are representative of the Democrats’ presidential candidates. For Bevin, it’s to attack Beshear as ultra-liberal and aligned with national Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez.
None of these parallels are to say a Bevin win or loss will necessarily predict what happens in 2020. Kentucky is much more conservative than the U.S. overall, so maybe Bevin ekes out a win this year but Trump loses in 2020 while using the same playbook.
That said, Beshear is an interesting test case for the Democratic Party’s ability to win rural, no-college and one-time-Trump-supporting voters, both in Kentucky and elsewhere. Bevin will try to win reelection while being very controversial and fairly unpopular — a year before Trump attempts to do the same.