Update: 5:17 p.m. | If you ask Democrats in Washington, the blame for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s stunning loss Tuesday night to Republican Matt Bevin falls on the unpopularity of political insiders during a year in which outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading Republican presidential primary polls.
“Unfortunately, he ran into the unexpected headwinds of Trump-mania, losing to an outsider candidate in the Year of the Outsider,” said Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, a group which spent around $5 million in Conway’s favor, in a statement after the election.
Bevin ran as an outsider against Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has been in the Senate for nearly 30 years, in the Republican primary last year, but was crushed by a 60 percent to 35 percent margin. This year, he won a contentious primary by just 83 votes and sailed to victory in the general election, beating his Democratic rival by 9 points.
It is true that Bevin, like Carson and especially Trump, has been anything but politics as usual.
He took flak from the establishment when he bucked the advice of the Republican Governors Association in September, prompting the group to pull its support for four weeks ; he showed up an hour late to a fundraiser in Washington hosted for him by McConnell and most of the Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation; he denied making statements he was recorded making and lashed out at reporters covering his campaign.
During a press conference in New Hampshire, Trump, himself, acknowledged the comparison .
“I loved what happened in Kentucky, and he’s a good guy,” he said. “They gave me a lot of credit for that one. I don’t deserve the credit, but there is something happening, folks.”
Al Cross, a longtime political reporter for the Lexington Courier-Journal who now teaches journalism at the University of Kentucky, said the anti-establishment persona was “just one leg of the three-legged stool” on which Bevin’s success was built.
Cross said the other two were “same-sex marriage, and related issues” having to do with the uproar over the summer over Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses, as well as the unpopularity of President Barack Obama, whose face was featured next to Conway’s in television commercials paid for by the RGA.
A Democrat with knowledge of internal polling said the race shook out like one that would typically fall against an incumbent, with Democratic establishment-backed Conway filling that role. In public polling, Conway had led in the three-way matchup against Bevin and independent Drew Curtis.
Conway, who lacked the personality and anti-establishment credentials of his boisterous rival, failed to pull support from undecided voters, according to the Democratic source.
Kentucky Republicans say the Trump comparison misses the mark — that voters were looking for candidates with different thinking and new ideas.
“If they’re trying to compare Matt Bevin as some sort of manifestation of Donald Trump, that’s not fair,” said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Robertson said Bevin’s campaign was “very genuine,” and offered a “fresh perspective” that contrasted with Conway, whom he called a “very sheltered candidate” without the “personality to connect with his base.”
Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said the notion that Conway fell only to “Trump-mania” is an “absolute joke,” and that the Democrats are “clueless” about the reasons for their defeat.
“Matt Bevin provided a clear contrast between himself and Conway, how he would give Kentucky a fresh start and lead the Commonwealth in a new direction,” he said.
Instead, the association said Bevin’s win rests heavily in its own spending in the Bluegrass State between July and September, and in the final two weeks of the race “when it mattered most.” In all, even after pulling out of the race for four weeks, the group said it spent $6 million to help Bevin.
“The RGA’s early investment 12 hours after Conway debuted his first TV ad kept Bevin in the game and gave him enough cover to stay close while his campaigned rebooted,” said Paul Bennecke, the RGA’s executive director, in a memo released Wednesday.
Along with Bevin , Kentucky voters selected Republicans in four of the six statewide races up for grabs. Bevin will be the state’s first Republican governor since 2003, and one of only two who has been elected in the past four decades.