Poll: Democrat Leads GOP Governor in Kentucky

Republican Matt Bevin is unpopular and trails potential challengers

Polling shows Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, right, is potentially vulnerable in his 2019 re-election bid. That could affect the 2020 re-election bid of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A new poll of next year’s gubernatorial race in Kentucky shows Democrats in position to extend their nationwide winning streak beyond the 2018 midterms.

Aside from taking back the House majority, Democrats also gained seven governorships around the country. And the party could pick up two more next year with wins in Kentucky and Mississippi, while re-electing Gov. John Bel Edwards in Louisiana.

GOP Gov. Matt Bevin had a mediocre 38 percent job approval rating, according to a Dec. 12-15 survey of 625 registered Kentucky voters conducted by Mason-Dixon. Fifty-three percent of respondents disapproved of the job Bevin is doing.

The governor didn’t fare much better in hypothetical general election ballot tests. He trailed state Attorney General Andy Beshear 40-48 percent and was running virtually even with state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins (41-42 percent) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (47-46 percent).

Bevin’s personal standing wasn’t great either, with a 29 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable rating. His potential Democratic opponents weren’t wildly popular: Beshear was 31 percent favorable/23 percent unfavorable, Adkins 18 percent favorable/3 percent unfavorable, and Grimes 28 percent favorable/29 unfavorable. That means Bevin’s poor standing on the initial ballot test is likely a function of his own weakness.

Even though Donald Trump won Kentucky 63-33 percent over Hillary Clinton in 2016, the president had a less-than-stellar 46 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable ratings in the latest survey.

But all is not lost for Bevin more than 10 months before the election.

Kentucky is still a fundamentally Republican state, with an Inside Elections Baseline performance of 57.3 percent compared to Democrats’ 41.6 percent. That means, under average conditions, the GOP candidate should have about a 15-point advantage.

And Bevin has been in a somewhat similar position before. In 2015, an October 6-8 Mason-Dixon poll showed Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway leading Bevin 43-41 percent, a month before Bevin won the election 53-44 percent. (Bevin defeated now-Rep. James Comer by just 83 votes in the GOP primary.)

But being an unpopular incumbent with a polarizing record could be an extraordinary set of circumstances and a different dynamic than Bevin’s previous race. Andy Beshear, whose father Steve was a relatively popular outgoing governor when Bevin won, did win his own race in 2015. Andy should be a strong challenger, but this will also be his toughest race yet. If GOP attacks on Beshear don’t stick, the governor could be in serious trouble.

Our initial rating of the Kentucky gubernatorial race is Likely Republican, but obviously that could change as the race develops. And my colleague Leah Askarinam wrote more about the Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana gubernatorial races in the Dec. 14 issue of Inside Elections.

Next year’s race in Kentucky could have an impact on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020. If Bevin is viewed as extremely vulnerable, it could draw attention away from (or at least delay) the effort to defeat the GOP leader. But once again, McConnell should have a competitive race.

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