Kentucky voters delivered two mild surprises in Tuesday’s primaries for governor: Rocky Adkins ran a strong second to Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, and Robert Goforth ran a comparable second to Republican incumbent Matt Bevin. What does that mean for the fall?
The performance of Adkins, the state House minority leader, has several threads that relate to the Beshear-Bevin contest.
First, Adkins proved to be a good campaigner who won backing from a broader range of Kentuckians than the ruralites who made up his base. He carried most of the counties in the Bluegrass Region, several of them more suburban than rural. Some of that may have been strategic voting by Democrats, thinking he was their best bet to oust Bevin; the best example of that was his 47 percent of the vote in Franklin County, the seat of government. But the fact that he was a credible alternative to so many is testimony to his appeal.
Second, Adkins showed that there are still plenty of social conservatives interested in voting in statewide Democratic primaries if they see a candidate they like. He didn’t talk about the litmus-test issue, abortion, unless he was asked about it, but many who cared about the issue knew where he stood, and it was clearly a driving factor for him.
Third, Adkins’ performance showed the relative weakness of Beshear, who was the front-runner from the start and ran a stand-pat campaign that tried to focus on Bevin. Some Adkins voters in Scott County told me they wanted “a new face” in statewide leadership though Beshear has been in office less than four years; they noted that his father, Steve Beshear, was governor for eight.
Some will argue that Adkins became an alternative for voters due to the attacks on Beshear by former state auditor Adam Edelen and his allied super PAC. It’s common in multi-opponent primaries for the attacker to suffer blowback, but in this case Adkins’ anti-abortion stand made him unacceptable to some voters put off by the attacks, and many of them probably defaulted to Beshear; the attacks about his 2015 campaign contributions from drug companies didn’t seem to gain traction.
That was probably reflected in Jefferson County, where Edelen had a running mate and high hopes for a big margin, but Beshear beat him, 48 percent to 40 percent. (Edelen carried only his native Meade County and, by 10 votes, adjoining Breckinridge.) Farther west, the Beshear family’s roots in the Western Coalfield helped guarantee its scion’s nomination.
In the Republican primary, Goforth, a state representative from Laurel County, won 31 counties and 39 percent of the vote, beating all public expectations. It was testimony to the hole Bevin has dug for himself with his combative approach to legislators, who are local opinion leaders, and his infamous remarks about teachers, many of whom are Republicans.
But Bevin’s 52.4 percent of the four-way vote isn’t comparable to the 50.1 percent then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher got in the primary of 2007 when a personnel scandal generated two strong Republican primary opponents and guaranteed his defeat by Steve Beshear that fall.