Beshear’s apparent victory comes amid a national teacher uprising in which educators have staged walkouts in more than a dozen states — and some of the nation’s largest school systems — including conservative states like Kentucky.
Now, many teachers have translated that energy to the realm of electoral politics, helping elect candidates who pledge to protect education funding while ousting lawmakers who opposed their causes. Teachers already have helped swing races in Wisconsin and in legislatures in several other states where lawmakers who opposed them were replaced by challengers who pledged to increase education spending.
Last year in Kentucky, math teacher R. Travis Brenda narrowly upset Jonathan Shell, then state House majority floor leader, despite Shell having the endorsement of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Shell co-sponsored a pension overhaul that ignited teacher protests.
In this year’s race for governor, Bevin banked on support from Trump, who rallied with him in the state Monday, and on conservatives’ ire at the impeachment process. But Beshear, the state’s attorney general and son of Bevin’s predecessor, came out ahead in a race that drew more than 1.4 million residents to the polls. Bevin requested an official recanvass of the results, alleging voting irregularities. The Kentucky secretary of state has scheduled a recanvass for next week.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Beshear gave credit to teachers.
“Your courage to stand up and fight against all of the bullying and name-calling helped galvanize our entire state,” said Beshear, who chose a teacher as his running mate. “To our educators, this is your victory.”
As attorney general, Beshear sued Bevin over his attempt to overhaul the teacher pension plan and prevailed. When Bevin sought educators’ records to investigate them for missing school to attend walkouts, Beshear sued to block the subpoena.
Educators in Kentucky — Republicans and Democrats — harnessed the momentum of those walkouts to try to propel Beshear to the governor’s office, with teacher volunteers proving key to the campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort, said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
Teachers had walked out of their classrooms over a middle-of-the-night amendment the governor pushed through to alter teacher pensions. Teachers ultimately prevailed, but not before Bevin lashed out, calling them “thuggish.” He suggested without evidence that children were being sexually assaulted and were using drugs while teachers protested, and later blamed the shooting of a 7-year-old girl on the walkout.
“We used Matt Bevin’s words against him,” Turner said. His comments “really incensed not just teachers, but the folks who are friends of families of the teachers, the neighbors of teachers.”
Bevin’s campaign declined to comment Wednesday.
Beshear’s apparent victory offers more evidence that educators are successfully flexing their muscles in electoral politics, and that the issue of education remains a top concern for voters. Bevin’s comments about teachers provided ample ammunition for political advertisements.
Many see the Kentucky election as evidence that Republicans are vulnerable, even in states Trump won by wide margins. But others see no larger message, viewing it solely as a referendum on Bevin, who consistently ranked among the least popular governors in the nation.
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said many voters — not just teachers — were moved to vote for Beshear because of Bevin’s remarks about teachers. Cross spoke to 30 voters on Election Day, and many mentioned Bevin’s comments. Only one talked about impeachment.
“The Bevin comments on teachers are really burned in” voters’ minds, Cross said. “When he said that on April 13, 2018, he lost the support of many Kentuckians.”
Ashlee Kinney, a special-education teacher at West Jessamine High in Nicholasville, Ky., is a lifelong Republican who had never voted for a Democrat for governor before Tuesday. A devout Christian, she is antiabortion, a position that puts her at odds with Beshear. But she said she worried more about the damage Bevin could do to schools than she did about how much Beshear could advance abortion rights.
Beshear, she said, is “a Kentucky boy and I feel like everywhere he goes he’s very polite and he’s very kind.”
“I feel like he cares for the poor and the less fortunate, and in my job, those are the kids I am teaching,” Kinney said.