Thursday, November 5, 2015

Did the GOP Steal Kentucky Guv's Race? [Spoiler: Not Likely]

The Tea Party GOP Bevin-Hampton ticket won handily in an election with just 30% voter turnout / Photo: Facebook

An article from Alternet is making the rounds in online progressive and Democratic circles today, asking a provocative question:

Did GOP Insiders Steal the Kentucky Governor's Race for Tea Partier Matt Bevin?  

However, once you look at the Kentucky election results and dig a bit more into the dynamics of the race, it seems to be much ado about nothing.  And the bigger story here is that Kentucky's elected state executive offices just flipped party control from 6 Democrats and 1 Republican to 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats.

Some takes on the Alternet piece make it sound like more people voted on down-ballot races than on the Governor's race.  If true, that would be shocking - but it's not true.  Almost 10,000 more folks voted on Governor than Secretary of State, and races further down have, predictably, fewer votes cast. 

Let's look at the actual data:

Kentucky 2015 General Election
State-Wide Races
 *bolded names indicate who won a race 
**indicates candidate was incumbent

The Alternet article's sub-heading claims "Lower down the ballot, many Democrats got tens of thousands more votes than Bevin."

This is patently untrue.  NO Democrats down-ballot had higher vote counts than GOP Tea Partier Matt Bevin.  The next closest vote-getter amongst the Democrats - Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes - had 18,000 fewer votes than Bevin.

Perhaps they meant to say that some down-ballot Dems got significantly higher numbers than did Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway - that would be accurate.  Three of them did.  But that is not an unusual occurrence in the vast majority of states where ticket-splitting swing voters are more common than single-party rule.

It's first important to note that there was an Independent candidate in the Governor's race that pulled almost 36,000 votes.  Reading over Curtis's issues page, he appears to be pretty much a moderate Democrat - and given his support for raising the minimum wage, it's reasonable to surmise that the majority of his votes came from folks who otherwise would have voted for Jack Conway.  None of the down-ballot races had an Independent in the mix.  

Incumbent Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen won 449,941 votes - 23,000 more than Conway - but still went down in defeat in a very close race for re-eelection.

Andy Beshear earned an impressive 479,546 votes to win the AG's office, which Conway had vacated to run for Governor.  His vote advantage over Conway is likely explained by the fact that his father is the popular and well-connected current Governor, Steve Beshear.  Access to the fundraising and supporter network his dad had built over decades in Kentucky politics probably didn't hurt any, either.

In addition to the swing voter ticket-splitting phenomenon, there are a number of specific factors that likely explain the discrepancy between Democrat Jack Conway's 426,599 votes and the 493,187 votes won by the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State.

Firstincumbency has its advantages - Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes was seeking reelection to the Secretary of State's job.  [Even so, incumbency wasn't powerful enough to save Auditor Edelen this year.]

Second, Lundergan Grimes probably has pretty high name ID right now, especially among the hardy souls that actually show up on off years to vote.  If her name sounds familiar, there's a reason - she was US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger last year.  That race was targeted for a time, and brought a lot of money into the state (by Kentucky standards.)  As a result, Lundergan Grimes was all over the airwaves just last year.

Third, Bevin's running mate was African-American.  Lt. Governor-Elect Jenean Hampton just became the first black candidate ever elected state-wide in Kentucky's history.  Kentucky is pretty overwhelmingly white (86.3% non-Hispanic white as of 2010), and Hampton is, like Bevin, a pretty dang conservative Tea Party activist.  Nonetheless, the opportunity to make history may have been compelling to some swing voters who were otherwise undecided between Conway and Bevin.

Finally, making too much of differences in vote totals between co-partisans up and down a state-wide ticket is pretty ill-advised in most places.  This is definitely true in Kentucky, which has a long history of ticket-splitting.  Democrats have tended to dominate  Kentucky's elected state executive offices for decades, but partisan control has pinged around since 2004.  Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has been a US Senator for 30 years, and Republican Jim Bunning held the other seat (now occupied by Rand Paul) for 22 years.  Democrats have also tended to dominate at local levels, but that can be deceptive - remember, infamous, gay-marriage-opposing County Clerk Kim Davis was a Democratic elected official until she changed parties some weeks ago.

The vote totals for GOP candidates who swept to victory in open races for Agriculture Commissioner and Treasurer further support a story of ticket splitting swing voters determing the outcome in these races.  These candidates earned 50,000 - 60,000 more votes than Bevin did at the top of the ticket.

I agree with the importance of being able to verify tabulation of e-voting results, and share concern about the potential for shenanigans.  But it appears unlikely that any shenanigans were really at play in the Kentucky Governor's race.  
So rather than peddling conspiracy theories about the 2015 race, progressives might consider figuring out how to effectively turnout Democratic-leaning infrequent voters in non-Presidential years.  Effort turned in that direction would at least have the remote possibility of being constructive.

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