In a major blow to Democrats who have struggled to hold their ground in a once reliable part of the country, Republican businessman Matt Bevin beat Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in their race for the state’s governor’s mansion.
The Kentucky race was among a number of races across the country in an off-year election that political observers use as a bellwether for a full slate of elections, including the one for the White House, in 2016.
Bevin – a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell in a primary last year – led Conway, 53 percent to 44 percent, with most of the vote in. Independent Drew Curtis drew the remaining vote.
Bevin will be the state’s second Republican governor in two decades, joining Gov. Ernie Fletcher, was elected in 2003 in a state where Democrats had long maintained control of statewide elected offices.
Bevin said his election was part of a “great night for conservatives,” in which Republicans were projected to win four of the six statewide races on the ballot, but told his supporters, “do not forget that we are one Kentucky.”
Bevin’s running mate, Jenean Hampton, will be Kentucky’s first African-American statewide elected official.
National Republicans projected the wins in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia would give them momentum going into next year.
“A year after historic midterm victories and ninety days before the Iowa caucuses, Democrats were defeated in races across the country,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “Tonight was another key test for Democrats, Hillary Clinton and their party’s field organization and once again they failed to deliver. Democrats’ inability to win in competitive battleground states like Virginia is an ominous sign for their party heading into the presidential election.”
The Kentucky race was a bumpy ride for Bevin, who emerged in May from a hard-fought primary in which he beat his closest opponent, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, by only 83 votes.
Bevin enjoyed the early support of the Republican Governors Association, but lost it during an important four weeks in September and October over a disagreement with the organization. During that time, Democrats – including the Democratic Governors Association – funded negative messaging against Bevin, targeting his refusal to release his tax returns and inconsistencies in his messaging while touting Conway.
During his speech Tuesday night, Bevin made light of the onslaught of negative television ads, joking, “I know that many of you are weary of turning on your TV and seeing my evil twin.”
In late October, the RGA re-emerged in the state with a $2.5 million negative ad buy against Conway, tying him to President Barack Obama, who – along with his energy policies that are viewed as detrimental to the state’s coal industry – remains deeply unpopular in the Bluegrass State.
Last Democrat in Dixie: Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat to hold a statewide office in Mississippi, easily won re-election to a fourth term by a 56 percent-44 percent margin.
Hood raised twice as much money as his opponent, Republican U.S. attorney Mike Hurst, and ran nearly twice as many TV ads as Hurst.
Of the seven states in the Deep South, Hood is the only Democrat to hold a governor, attorney general or secretary of state seat.
School funding formula goes down: Mississippi voters rejected a move to change the state constitution to ensure that schools would be fully funded after 18 years of underfunding.
Initiative 42, which failed by a roughly 52-48 margin, would have given state courts more power to enforce funding requirements under the state’s education foundation formula.
The measure was opposed by Bryant and other government officials, who called it a transfer of power from the legislature to the courts, and a large number of trade organizations.
Republicans in the Legislature placed Initiative 42A, which appeared alongside Initiative 42, on the ballot. The counter initiative would have prohibited courts from being involved in education funding.
Better Schools, Better Jobs spokeswoman Patsy Brumfield told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that the pro-reform movement actually won the vote because more people voted for Initiative 42 than the alternative measure. “But the confusion with the ballot caused lots of folks to just not know what to do.”
Listed separately on the ballot from the yes-no vote to change the constitution, Initiative 42 beat the alternative, 59 percent-41 percent.
Governor wins big: Republican Gov. Phil Bryant easily won a second term, beating Democrat Robert Gray, a truck driver who won the August primary without spending a penny, by nearly a 2-1 margin. With nearly all the vote in, Bryant held a 66 percent-32 percent margin over Gray.
Up in smoke: Voters in Ohio rejected a measure that would have made it the fifth state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Issue 3, which would have legalized recreational and medical marijuana sales and use for adults, went down by a 2-1 margin.
The initiative would have limited commercial growth to 10 parcels of land belonging to investors bankrolling the initiative. The measure would have also allowed those over 21 to grow four flowering plants in their homes.
Voters approved another initiative, Issue 2, which prohibits monopolies in the state. Supporters said a provision in the ballot issue would have nullified Issue 3, had it passed.
National Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith called the Ohio measure a “ deeply flawed, monopolistic approach to marijuana reform” but said the debate in Ohio shows “a strong base of support for legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana. Now the foundation has been laid for a potential 2016 effort that would put forward a more common-sense initiative and have a major impact on the presidential conversation in the process.”
Colorado can spend marijuana tax: Voters in the Centennial State gave lawmakers permission to spend the $66 million excess tax revenue from marijuana sales on public education and drug-prevention programs for youths.
Under the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, any extra revenue from taxes must be returned to taxpayers. But the statewide ballot initiative easily cleared the supermajority needed to allow lawmakers to spend the funds.
If the measure had failed, $25 million would have been returned to taxpayers and the remaining 41 percent would have been returned to marijuana growers and users through tax breaks.
GOP maintains hold on Virginia legislature: Voters in Virginia handed Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe a loss by keeping the state Senate in Republican control when Democrats failed to pick up the two seats necessary to take over the chamber. Republicans hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate after Tuesday’s vote.
A Democratic Senate would have helped McAuliffe push Medicaid expansion, but with the House of Delegates firmly in GOP hands by a 2-1 margin, McAuliffe’s push wasn’t likely to go far.
Control of the General Assembly aside, the electoral success (or failure) of Democratic state legislature candidates could push some of them to jump into Virginia’s congressional races, with the 10th District currently the most competitive.
Several districts in the Old Dominion State could become more competitive depending on how a three-judge court redraws the state’s congressional map. (A court dismissed a similar challenge to its legislative districts on Oct. 22.) Democratic recruitment at the congressional level has been slow since state-level Democrats are waiting to see what the federal map will look like.
Advantage Democrats: In Pennsylvania, Democrats swept the three seats up for election on the state’s Supreme Court, and control of the seven-member panel, which could have a broad implication on redistricting in 2020.
With the court often tasked with picking the fifth member of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, Democrats will have a leg-up on redrawing the 18 congressional seats in the Keystone State, of which Democrats currently control just five, despite carrying presidential, governor and Senate races.
Too soon?: Two former tea-party-backed lawmakers who lost their seats two months ago after their extra-marital affair came to light lost their comeback bids to the Michigan Legislature.
With most of the vote counted, ex Rep. Cindy Gamrat, who was expelled from the Legislature in September, earned only about 9 percent of the vote to winner Mary Whiteford’s 51 percent, finishing third in the eight-candidate field.
Former Rep. Todd Courser, who admitted to having an affair with Gamrat and resigned in the face of expulsion in September, finished sixth in the 11-candidate field for his district, earning 4 percent of the vote while retired attorney Gary Howell won with 26 percent of the vote.
Courser and Gamrat are under investigation by the state police and the state attorney general’s office to determine if they misused public resources in their attempts to cover up their affair.