Kentucky voters appeared to reject Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday, bucking a statewide Republican trend as they turned their backs on a politician known as much for his blustery personality as his conservative values.
Democrat Andy Beshear, who ran a campaign as the anti-Bevin and stuck to a script of “kitchen table issues” _ education, pensions, health care and jobs _ declared a narrow victory over the incumbent governor.
As of 10 p.m. EST, unofficial results from The Associated Press showed Beshear leading Bevin by 4,658 votes with 100% of precincts reporting. More than 1.4 million votes were cast.
Bevin refused to concede the race.
“Would it be a Bevin race if it wasn’t a squeaker? I mean come on,” Bevin asked the crowd at the Galt House in Louisville. “This is a close, close race. We are not conceding this race by any stretch.”
Instead, he said he wanted every vote to be counted and for the “process to be followed” before the next governor takes office. The State Board of Elections typically approves the official election results within a few days of an election.
Bevin did not specify whether he would challenge the results of the race, but he has 30 days after the results are certified by the State Board of Elections to decide whether to formally contest the results, according to state law. Typically candidates request a re-canvass of voting machines, and then a recount, before contesting an election.
A contested election in Kentucky is extremely rare. According to state Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, the last contested election for governor involved the 1899 election of Democrat William Goebel.
“After tonight this election is over,” Beshear told supporters as he declared victory. “After tonight, we move forward with every other Kentucky citizen as team Kentucky.”
The campaign was never really about Beshear. In a state that has grown more conservative, Democrats had an opening against a governor who angered one of the largest constituent groups in the commonwealth _ teachers _ as he attempted to overhaul Kentucky’s ailing pension systems.
Beshear’s apparent victory comes even as Bevin clung tightly to President Donald Trump, with several administration officials visiting throughout Bevin’s campaign, including two visits from Trump himself. Trump’s inability to lift an unpopular Bevin in a state the president won by almost 30 percentage points creates a perception the president is weak as he heads into the 2020 elections and as talk of impeachment swirls in D.C.
Bevin never backed down from comments he made during the pension debate _ at one point he “guaranteed” a child was sexually assaulted because teachers were protesting in Frankfort _ and only doubled down on the campaign trail, scolding teachers who came out to protest him.
Beshear focused most on education during a campaign that stretched 16 months. He made a former assistant principal, Jacqueline Coleman, his lieutenant governor running mate and pledged to end Bevin’s “war on public education” by giving teachers pay raises, increasing funding for public schools and shrinking class sizes.
In his victory speech, Beshear profusely thanked teachers, saying they helped galvanize the entire state.
“To our educators, this is your victory,” Beshear said. “From now on, the doors of your state Capitol will always be open, we will treat each other with dignity and respect.”
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Beshear’s decision to focus on education, an issue that crosses party lines, proved crucial.
“The way a Democrat wins in a red state and the way a Republican wins in a blue state is by taking a moderate message to swing voters,” Beshear said.
While Bevin and Republicans attempted to make the race about social and national issues _ talking often of abortion, immigration and the Democratic efforts to impeach Trump _ Beshear often refused to engage, saying the race should be about Kentucky, not what’s going on across the country.
But it was really Bevin who tipped the race in Beshear’s favor. Despite his attempts to urge people to vote based on their conservative values, the resentment Bevin stirred up among teachers won the day.
In other states, governors who battled with teachers’ groups were able to earn public support, according to Voss. That didn’t happen for Bevin.
“In Kentucky, Bevin consistently helped the teachers with their message,” Voss said. “He used language that gave sympathy to the teachers. I think the average Kentuckian thinks more has been done against the teachers than actually has.”
Bevin’s campaign made a late push with the help of the White House, hoping visits from Vice President Mike Pence and Trump would encourage Republicans to vote for Bevin on Election Day.
“The president just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end,” said Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager. “A final outcome remains to be seen.”
But in his visits, Trump couldn’t help but keep Bevin at an arm’s distance. In Louisville, Trump made a point of describing Bevin as not always appreciated. In Lexington, the night before the election, Trump complimented Bevin by calling him a “pain in the ass.”
Trump’s visit to Lexington also may have galvanized Beshear’s supporters in Kentucky’s second largest city. Beshear received 65% of the vote in Fayette County which, combined with 67% of the vote in Jefferson County, provided a crucial cushion as Bevin racked up wins throughout much of Southern and Western Kentucky.
Beshear was able to hold many of the state’s largest population areas, including Kenton and Boone County in Northern Kentucky and Warren County in Western Kentucky, all areas that Bevin won when he was elected governor in 2015.
Beshear, who turns 42 on Nov. 29, would become the youngest governor since Ned Breathitt in 1963.