Democrat Andy Beshear claimed victory Tuesday night over incumbent Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), a Trump ally who said he was not ready to concede the election with only a few thousand votes separating him from reelection.
Appearing at his victory party shortly after 10 p.m., Beshear vowed to be a “governor for everyone.” He said the election’s outcome should be viewed as a sign that voters are tired of partisan division.
“With all the partisan bickering and nastiness that we are seeing in politics, we have an opportunity to do better right here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “I ran on kitchen-table issues, and I will govern, focused on those same challenges of good jobs, health care for every Kentuckian, protecting and funding our pensions and always supporting public education.”
In a statement Tuesday night, Democratic Governors Association Chair Gina Raimondo congratulated Beshear.
“Governor-Elect Andy Beshear will restore decency to Frankfort and has spent his career lifting up every single Kentuckian,” said Raimondo, governor of Rhode Island. “Tonight’s victory is a major pickup for Democrats and a massive rejection of Bevin’s record of stoking chaos, undermining public education, and trying to gut health care coverage.”
But Bevin did not concede, saying “there have been are more than a few irregularities” in the election, without citing specific examples.
“This is a close, close race. We are not conceding this race by any stretch,” Bevin said during his election-night speech.
Republicans won several other statewide races in Kentucky, including the contest for attorney general. Republican Daniel Cameron, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), will become Kentucky’s first African-American attorney general, replacing Beshear. Cameron’s victory is a major boost for national Republicans who have struggled to add more diversity to their slate of elected leaders.
The governor’s race ended with President Trump mounting an aggressive effort to stop Beshear from winning the governor’s mansion in a state that the president carried by nearly 30 percent just three years earlier. The contest was marred by bitter personality and policy disagreements between the two candidates, including Bevin’s spat with Kentucky teachers over efforts to reform their pensions.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale maintained that Trump’s support boosted Republican candidates in Kentucky on election night.
“President Trump’s rally helped five of six Kentucky Republicans win clear statewide victories, including Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron, who will be the first black A.G. in Kentucky history and the first Republican to hold the office since 1948,” he said. “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. A final outcome remains to be seen.”
Trump repeated that notion in a tweet late Friday, adding that “@MattBevin picked up at least 15 points in last days, but perhaps not enough (Fake News will blame Trump!). Winning in Mississippi Governor race!”
Voters in Mississippi elected Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves as the state’s next governor, defeating Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. With 87 percent of precincts reporting, Reeves was leading with 53 percent of the vote while Hood held 46 percent.
That election largely centered on how the state will pay for a host of needs, including new highways and teachers’ demands for higher pay, as well as Medicaid expansion to roughly 300,000 low-income residents.
The gubernatorial races came one year after Democrats made major inroads in state houses, including flipping seven governorships and more than 400 state legislative seats. Many of those gains were in Midwestern or coastal states that formed the backbone of the backlash to Trump in the 2018 midterm elections. But this year, there are only three gubernatorial races, all in states that have been far friendlier to Trump and his conservative agenda.
Three weeks ago, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) failed to win an outright majority in his state’s bipartisan “jungle” primary, triggering a runoff election on Nov. 16 against Republican businessman Eddie Rispone. Ahead of the election, Trump traveled to Louisiana to campaign against Edwards, a strategy the president repeated in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s elections.
In 2016, Trump carried Mississippi by about 17 points, Louisiana by about 20 points and Kentucky by about 30 points.
As he campaigned in all three states, the contests gave Trump an opportunity to refine his campaign tactics ahead of the 2020 presidential election, especially when it comes to wooing religious conservatives and white working-class voters to the polls. The elections also gave Trump a chance to prove his political staying power, even as the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry continues to intensify.
On Monday night, less than 12 hours before the polls opened, Trump appeared at a rally in Lexington, Ky., to support Bevin but also made sure the crowd knew his own reputation was on the line.
“If you lose, they will say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,” said Trump, pointing at a bank of news cameras. “You can’t let that happen to me, and you can’t let that happen to your incredible state.”
Bevin, 52, is a wealthy businessman who rose to political prominence after he became a leader of the conservative tea party movement that opposed the policies of President Barack Obama.
In 2014, Bevin challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the GOP primary, but McConnell defeated him by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. A year later, despite lingering tension between supporters of the two men, Bevin shocked pundits when he won the governor’s race by nearly nine points. Bevin’s surprise win and brash speaking style earned him the moniker “Trump before Trump,” and he and Trump frequently speak on the telephone, both men have said.
In office, Bevin worked to boost the state’s economy, including aggressively reaching out to China and other foreign investors. On the campaign trail, Bevin frequently boasted about the state’s unemployment rate, which has dipped below 4 percent for the first time in nearly two decades. Bevin hoped his economic record would propel his reelection, which would make him Kentucky’s first Republican governor to be reelected since the state dropped its one-term-governor provision in the early 1990s.
But Bevin got into high-profile clashes with teachers and labor leaders over the state’s chronically underfunded pension program. After teachers staged sickouts and walkouts in protest of efforts to slash benefits, Bevin accused them of being “thuggish” and “selfish.” Bevin’s comments and proposals enraged educators, and state and national teachers unions poured millions of dollars into the Democratic campaign to defeat him this year.
With polls showing Bevin was one of the least popular governors in the country, the Democratic Governors Association also invested heavily in the campaign to oust him. Bevin’s fortunes looked especially bleak in May, when he received 52 percent of the vote against three challengers in the Republican primary.
Democrats nominated Beshear, 41, the son of former governor Steve Beshear. During the general election campaign, Beshear hammered Bevin as being too divisive while pledging to legalize gambling and medical marijuana to help shore up teachers’ pensions. Beshear also vowed to expand access to health care while criticizing Bevin’s attempts to slow the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“I am promising vision and leadership, so we don’t have this kind of leadership holding us back,” Beshear told Bevin during one of their final debates. “I believe in health care; I am going to protect health care. This governor will not.”
As public and private polls showed Beshear comfortably ahead during the summer, Bevin sought to more closely link himself to Trump and national GOP policies. Bevin, the father of nine children, including four who were adopted, aired ads vowing to oppose abortion rights and “sanctuary cities.” He also seized on congressional Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump by urging the president’s supporters to help reelect him to send a message.
“It’s a load of baloney, and if you want to make their heads explode, elect every one of us,” Bevin said at a rally with other GOP candidates on Saturday in northeastern Kentucky. “If you want to make The Washington Post and the New York Times, and all of these other rags get all worked up and hot and bothered, vote straight Republican.”
Bevin’s message was amplified by Trump, whose visit Monday night drew several days of buildup coverage in the local media. Lexington’s CBS affiliate also carried Trump’s 90-minute prime-time speech live; it was riddled with falsehoods about Beshear’s record.
“The radical Democrats want to obliterate the rule of law, drive out faith from the public square, silence you online, confiscate your guns,” Trump said.
Trump also played a big role in the Mississippi governor’s race, where Hood campaigned as a conservative Democrat.
Hood, who is in his fourth term as attorney general, opposed abortion and has defended a new state law that bans abortion as early as the sixth week.
But Hood, 57, sought to focus the campaign on his plans to raise teacher pay, build new highways and use an expansion of Medicaid to extend coverage and keep struggling rural hospitals open.
Reeves, 45, in turn vowed to keep taxes low and to reduce government spending.
The race was widely considered to be the most competitive gubernatorial race in the state since 2000, when Ronnie Musgrove became the last Democrat to hold the office.
The race also renewed concerns about a Jim Crow-era provision of the state constitution that could upend the election results, requiring a successful candidate to win a plurality of votes in more than half the state’s 122 House districts. If a candidate fails to clear that hurdle and win the popular vote, the Mississippi House of Representatives can decide the election. Republicans hold the majority in the Mississippi House.
In September, social justice advocates sued to block the provision, but a federal judge decided last week not to intervene before the election. However, the judge said he had “grave concern” that the provision could be unconstitutional and seemed to suggest that the court could intervene should it be triggered in this election.