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Ladies and Gentlemen of Ricochet, I meant to spend the day taking you on a dreary tour of European Nazi-land, but I got so caught up and excited about following the results of the off-term elections that I didn’t write that post. I figure the Nazis will still be here tomorrow, though, and that you’ll forgive me for taking a detour, because these election results really are pretty interesting, no?
I’m not there, so you’ll have to answer all my questions about what happened. Here’s my first question. The Washington Post has a good round-up (although it’s not as funny or as good as ours, see below). I’m especially intrigued by Matt Bevin’s win in Kentucky. Congratulations, Governor Bevin!
Now, it sounds to me as if even Bevin didn’t really expect to win this. This report from Politico made it sound that way, anyway:
Bevin realizes no party leader has ever gone down in a primary; he knows the prevailing wisdom in Washington is that he has no chance, and that his only purpose is to damage McConnell heading into a tough general election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. No incumbent has a bigger target on his back this year than McConnell — a host of tea party groups and the entire Democratic Party both want nothing more than to defeat him — and Bevin’s performance could go a long way in determining whether the minority leader survives to serve a sixth term and possibly become majority leader.
Bevin credibly invokes a Horatio Alger-like life story on the trail. Grew up on a New Hampshire farm in a family of eight with a single toilet and a wood-burning stove to heat the three-bedroom home. Worked his way through college on an ROTC scholarship and rose to the rank of U.S. Army captain. Self-made millionaire businessman and investor. Father of nine, including four adopted from Ethiopia.
Yet none of those feats could have prepared the 47-year-old, tea party-backed Republican for the self-inflicted endurance test he is currently experiencing taking on McConnell.
Down 20-plus percentage points in polls — an improvement, Bevin notes in his characteristically upbeat manner, from the 40-point deficit he faced last summer — his immediate task is to convince people not that he will win the May 20 primary, just that it’s not totally inconceivable he could.
“Statistically, even now, it’s crazy long odds, but the tide is turning,” he said. “I’ve always been a risk taker, but I’m a calculated risk taker.”
“I’m going to be the Republican nominee,” McConnell countered flatly last week, when asked about Bevin and criticism that the 71-year-old Republican leader isn’t conservative enough for Kentucky GOP primary voters.
Asked if he wanted to weigh in on Bevin’s candidacy, McConnell said only: “I don’t.”
In the meantime, Bevin, who is prone to military metaphors when he talks about his campaign, is content to play the happy warrior — a first-time candidate with low expectations out to defy the naysayers and prove he can withstand the full brunt of the McConnell machine
But as WaPo reports, “Republican Matt Bevin won a big upset in the Kentucky governor’s race. The guy who Mitch McConnell crushed by 25 points in a 2014 primary will now become just the second Republican to govern the Bluegrass State in four decades.”
And here’s a part that intrigues me: “There should be more soul searching among pollsters, who once again got it wrong. Every survey of Kentucky showed Conway ahead, which meaningfully altered perceptions of the race.”
Every survey? Every one? So what’s up with this? Does it seem to you that the pollsters have been going awry more often than you’d expect these days? Why?
1. How bad is public polling, or is Kentucky unusually hard to poll? Basically every public poll over the past several weeks had Bevin losing – even his campaign could do no better than muster an internal poll showing him tied (so did Vox Populi, a Republican-leaning pollster that had him at 44-44 and which got bragging rights in 2014 as one of the few pollsters showing anything like a competitive Virginia Senate race). But recall that polls consistently understated Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) 54% margin of victory last year by a wide margin. Maybe we are headed to more catastrophic polling failures in 2016, or maybe Kentucky is just a tough state to poll.
If it is, why?
2. How unpopular is the GOP Establishment? Bevin, of course, was hated and scorned by many in the establishment after his primary challenge to McConnell last year, and feuded at times with the RGA over spending in this race. Then again, the RGA poured a lot more money into this race over the summer than Bevin did himself, and ended up with an ad blitz at the end, and both McConnell and Bevin showed the maturity and teamwork to set aside their bad blood and do a joint campaign appearance yesterday. The Louisiana Governor’s race on November 21 will provide another test –Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) 85%, unlike Bevin, is a member in good standing of McConnell’s caucus, and he seems to be in deep trouble there. If Vitter loses after Bevin won, that may underline the anti-incumbent mood, especially since it would mean both states tossing out the party in power.
3. Is school choice a winning issue? Americans for Prosperity ran this ad heavily in Democratic Louisville, which has a significant black population, and Josh Kraushaar noted on Twitter that “Internal polling showed it was #2 issue behind jobs” – Jack Conway underperformed past Democratic campaigns in Louisville:
(Kraushaar also notes that Bevin’s running mate, Jenean Hampton, will be the first African-American ever elected to statewide office in Kentucky).
5. Is there a religious-liberty backlash on the way? You may recall that the largest political story of 2015 in Kentucky was the fight over county clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Despite the fact that Davis was an elected Democrat, Beshear and Conway ran away from her like the plague, while Bevin embraced the idea that state officials can have some conscience protections, and Davis wound up smelling which way the wind was blowing and switching parties. Bevin otherwise ran a hard-edged social-issues campaign. Most of America isn’t Kentucky, where a pro-traditional-marriage amendment had passed with 75% of the vote in 2004, but clearly, the controversy didn’t hurt Bevin.
6. How much of a factor is Obama fatigue? Bevin worked hard to nationalize the race, and ads pounded the Democrats by tying them to a president who has never been popular in Kentucky. Vitter is doing more of the same in Louisiana, and if he survives there, it may show that down-ballot Democrats, at least in red states, simply aren’t going to escape Obama’s shadow as long as he’s in office. I’d be feeling pretty glum tonight if I was a candidate planning to oppose Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in his re-election race next fall.
7. How much do good candidates and political experience matter? Does Bevin herald the virtue of political amateurs? Maybe not so much, since his campaign was still a rocky one and perhaps just as importantly, it was his second go-round as a statewide candidate, so he had clearly learned some lessons from getting clobbered by McConnell and surviving an expensive and hotly-contested gubernatorial primary. And he was facing an opponent with a long track record of losing competitive races, in a state that is increasingly dark red. But naysayers who called Bevin an unelectable loose cannon were proven wrong.
So what lessons, if any, should we learn from this? WaPo warns: “But, but, but: Turnout was VERY low across the country. Republicans could over interpret the results at their own peril. The presidential election, exactly one year way, will have dramatically larger and more diverse turnout, which works against the GOP.”
Maybe. But maybe not?
Perhaps we should be asking the pollsters to tell us more about their methodology. And would any of our Kentucky denizens care to shed some light on this upset for the rest of us?