Most of the race between Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin, has been mean as a rattlesnake, and just as venomous, with attack ads and mail pieces clogging the airwaves and the mailboxes of the Commonwealth.
But the end of a debate on Kentucky Educational Television Monday night – the last before the election between Bevin and Conway ended on an almost conciliatory note.
Conway, the state’s attorney general, praised Bevin, a Louisville businessman, and his wife for the fact that they adopted children from Ethiopia, giving them a chance of a better life here.
“That’s something to be respected and admired,’’ Conway said.
Bevin was given his opportunity to say something nice about his opponent and came up with this:
“I look forward to you having the opportunity to join the private sector and have the opportunity for the first time in your life to appreciate all that you have done as a public servant for the people here,’’ Bevin said.
That’s about as nice as it got for the past six months between these two.
The third candidate in the race, independent Drew Curtis, the CEO of Fark.com, couldn’t say anything nice – he wasn’t on the stage. Curtis hasn’t been invited to participate in the debates because he has consistently polled in the single digits.
No question about it – this is a battle between Conway and Bevin; and it has been expensive and loud and not always very polite.
It has been pure Kentucky politics.
Kentucky is an odd place when it comes to the contrast between the way people in the Commonwealth vote in federal elections and in state elections.
In federal elections, the Republicans dominate. Both U.S. Senators – Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, who is busy running for president; are Republicans. Five of the six members of the U.S. House are Republicans – and the only Democrat, John Yarmouth of Louisville, is a former Republican.
The Bluegrass State has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in seven of the past 10 presidential elections – the exceptions being two Southerners, Jimmy Carter (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996).
And, perhaps most significantly, President Obama’s approval rating in the state is generally abysmal – hovering between 30 and 35 percent in most polls.
Yet Kentuckians have a long history of electing Democrats to the governor’s office and most of the other statewide offices. Since the late Wendell Ford became Kentucky’s governor in Dec. 1971, only one of the nine governors since then has been a Republican – Ernie Fletcher, and he only lasted one term.
Both Conway and Bevin have been through some heavy-duty political warfare in recent years.
Bevin was a complete unknown when he decided to challenge the then-Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, in the May 2014 GOP primary. McConnell had had some close scrapes in elections over the years, but he had been re-elected to the Senate by Kentuckians every six years since 1984.
Bevin attracted the attention of the tea party movement – not just in Kentucky, but nationally. The tea party wing of the Republican party was fed up with establishment figures such as McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner; and they looked to Bevin – a political neophyte – to up-end McConnell.
A primary loss by McConnell would have been a major embarrassment to the Republican Party, but, in the end, McConnell won the GOP primary with 60 percent of the vote to Bevin’s 35 percent.
Bevin re-surfaced earlier this year as a candidate in a five-candidate GOP gubernatorial primary. He won narrowly over Agriculture Commissioner James Comer by a scant 83 votes.
Republicans feared the closeness of the election and the fact that the political outsider, Bevin, had won would split the party in the fall campaign.
Conway, too, has had his ups-and-downs in politics.
Five years ago, Rand Paul of Bowling Green – son of the former Texas congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul – stunned the political establishment by defeating former Secretary of State, Trey Grayson.
Paul went on to face Conway in a bitter general election; and won the election.
Paul, who is running for president, has done a little campaigning for Bevin this year. But, right after one campaign stop for Bevin in Kentucky, Paul was chagrined by the fact that Bevin went on the radio and said he favored Ben Carson for the GOP presidential nomination.
The result of all these past wars is that Kentuckians are choosing between major party candidates who don’t like each other very much.
Both parties believe it will be a relatively low turnout election; and it could also be very close.
But there are signs that the contest may be moving in the Democratic candidate's direction, although Conway certainly can't take victory for granted.
Wednesday, a new Bluegrass Poll was released, showing Conway with 45 percent support to Bevin's 40 percent. Curtis took six percent of the vote in the poll sponsored by Kentucky's two largest newspapers, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal, and two TV stations, WKYT in Lexington and WHAS in Louisville. The Bluegrass Poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
That Bluegrass Poll was in line with a Western Kentucky University poll released last week showing Conway with the same five percentage point margin.
Then, on Thursday morning, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the weekly politics newsletter from Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, changed its rating of the Kentucky governor's race from "toss-up" to "leans Democratic."
Bevin, the Crystal Ball concluded, was clearly having a problem uniting Kentucky Republicans after the bruising May primary.
One thing that has united the two major party candidates is that they have both touted their differences with the highly-unpopular president during the campaign.
Who are these candidates?
- Age: 46
- First elected attorney general in 2007 and re-elected in 2011
- Prior to becoming attorney general, he worked as a private attorney and was a legal counsel and deputy cabinet secretary in the administration of Gov. Paul Patton.
- A native of Louisville, he earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy at Duke University and a law degree from George Washington University.
- He is married, with two daughters.
- Age: 48
- Bevin grew up in Shelburne, New Hampshire. After high school, he attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia on a four-year ROTC scholarship.
- In 1989, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain. He spent four years on active duty with the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division.
- After leaving the military, Bevin worked in the financial industry. He founded a number of local firms and invested in companies in Kentucky and the U.S. His investments ranged from manufacturing to software.
- He often talks about growing up poor in New Hampshire, but he is now a multi-millionaire, according to reports filed with the U.S. Senate.
- He and his wife have nine children, including several from Ethiopia they adopted.
- Age: 42
- A Lexington native.
- Earned a bachelor’s degree from Luther College and a master’s degree from the Columbia Business School/Haas School of Business in 2012.
- After graduation from Luther College, Curtis helped Kentucky’s Department of Personnel in fixing issues in the employee insurance tracking system.
- He founded Fark.com in 1999, which aggregates news stories.
So where are they are on the issues?
The present Democratic governor, Steve Beshear issued an executive order earlier this year lowering the qualifications to receive Medicaid. Bevin said back in February that he “would reverse that immediately.”
That would take over 400,000 Kentuckians off Medicaid. Conway told WVXU he believes simply dropping those people from Medicaid “is not practical; it’s not good economics; and, frankly, it’s not the Christian thing to do.”
“The way to get more people off Medicaid is to grow more jobs in Kentucky; and I have a plan to do that,’’ Conway said.
Bevin, in an interview with WVXU, said he did not say he would drop those 400,000 immediately.
“What I have said and what I will do is that I will not continue to enroll people (in Medicaid) at 138 percent of the federal poverty level,’’ Bevin said.
The Republican wants Kentucky to set up its own Medicaid system, “sort of like Indiana.” It would require those who enroll to contribute to the system in the form of co-pays for health care.
“I want these folks to have skin in the game,’’ Bevin said. “People don’t value something they haven’t invested in.”
What should be done with the state-run health insurance exchange known as KYnect?
Bevin calls KYnect “a bust.” The recent collapse of the Kentucky Health Cooperative, one of the options under KYnect, will mean that about 51,000 Kentuckians will be out of health care insurance at the end of the year. Conway told WVXU this is “a bump in the road; the state will not lose a dime; and every one of these people will have seven other health care plans to choose from” under KYnect. Bevin disagreed, saying that many of the people who were covered by the Kentucky Health Cooperative will be forced into more expensive plans. KYnect, Bevins told WVXU, ‘is just Obamacare in another form, plain and simple.”
Curtis said on his website that he is “against repealing KYnect at this time. For one thing, nobody has a proposal for a better replacement.
Should Kentucky have a Right-to-Work law?
Conway has repeatedly said during the campaign that making Kentucky a right-to-work state is “a solution looking for a problem.” Kentucky has an unemployment rate lower than the national average, Conway said. “We don’t need a right-to-work law to grow jobs in Kentucky,’’ Conway told WVXU. Bevin wants to see Kentucky become a right-to-work state, because he said he believes that requiring employees to join a union is hindering job growth in Kentucky because businesses can go elsewhere. Curtis, on his campaign website, says he is undecided on this issue. But he said, if elected governor, he would veto Right-to-Work legislation “for now…I am not tied to my position on this. New data could change my mind.”
Was Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis right to give same-sex couple marriage license because she had a religious objection?
Conway said Davis was wrong. “A lot of people have sympathy for her, but the majority of Kentuckians believe she should have followed the law,’’ Conway told WVXU. There is nothing in the Supreme Court ruling, Conway said, that tells a minister or religious congregation what they must do. Bevin believes Davis being jailed for refusing to grant licenses to same-sex couples “is a violation of religious liberties. Putting a county clerk in jail for something she believes is within her rights – that is just wrong.” Bevin is also critical of Conway, as attorney general, for not arguing before the Supreme Court in favor of Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban. Conway says it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. Curtis says he supports a bill in the legislature that would prevent anyone from having to join in or perform a marriage ceremony but require anyone whose job it is to issue marriage licenses to do so.
Find more information on the candidates and the issues on their websites: