Torching Progress

Gov. Matt Bevin's election signals a hard swing to the right for Kentucky

click to enlarge Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began his tenure by quickly instituting a number of conservative measures and wiping out policies enacted by predecessor Democrat Steve Beshear.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began his tenure by quickly instituting a number of conservative measures and wiping out policies enacted by predecessor Democrat Steve Beshear.

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or only the second time in 40 years, Kentucky has a Republican governor — and his election might signal a sea change in the Bluegrass State, which has traditionally favored Democrats in statewide offices and the state legislature.

Tea party favorite Republican Gov. Matt Bevin swept into office by grabbing a convincing 53 percent of the state’s voters, trouncing Democrat Jack Conway. The victory was especially surprising given polls predicting Conway’s victory, Kentucky’s historic lean toward Democrats, Bevin’s rocky previous GOP primary campaign for U.S. Senate and his hard-right — some would say radical — conservative politics.

Bevin has wasted no time putting those politics into action, giving a sneak-peek at what could lie ahead in the state by undoing a raft of progressive policies put in place by popular outgoing Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear.

The change could have huge implications. After less than a month in office, Bevin has already rolled back measures extending voting rights for former inmates and a minimum wage boost for state workers, and could reduce federally provided healthcare for nearly half a million Kentuckians.

Bevin has also pledged to enact a number of other conservative policies during his tenure. He’d like to shut down Kentucky’s Affordable Care Act health care exchange, KYnect, push back against federal environmental regulations, eliminate certain elements of Kentucky’s estate tax, create more charter schools in the state and other conservative moves.

“I see a cry for help,” Bevin said about his victory, citing Kentucky’s long tenure at the bottom of many national rankings measuring education, employment and other signs of well-being. “That’s what I see. And I want you to know that I hear that cry for help from every corner of this great commonwealth.”

But opponents say Bevin, a wealthy businessman, is a radical conservative with little political experience who rose to office by capitalizing on emotionally charged national issues such as abortion, gun rights and Obamacare, all of which turned out socially conservative Kentuckians while the state’s Democrats stayed home.

A controversial and gaffe-riddled primary campaign against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014 didn’t help Bevin’s image. Bevin drew heat for appearing at a cockfight while he was campaigning and also made some policy gaffes, including bashing McConnell for his vote to approve the big bank bailouts of 2008 while withholding his own position on those measures. McConnell handily beat Bevin in that primary, taking 60 percent of the vote.

So how did Bevin go from a GOP Senate primary also-ran to the state’s top executive a year later? Some of Bevin’s rise can be chalked up to the shifting fortunes of the Democratic Party in Kentucky.

The state is the last of the Southern states to have a state legislature dominated by Democrats. That used to be the norm during the so-called Dixiecrat era, which was rooted in a time when the Republican Party was still the party of Lincoln and Democrats had a firm grip on the South. Over time, mostly thanks to GOP strategy targeting white, Christian voters in southern states, that dominance has all but disappeared.

Vestiges of it have remained in Kentucky, especially at the local and state levels, but candidates like Bevin have adeptly used issues like same-sex marriage and opposition to Obamacare to chip away at local and statewide support for conservative and moderate Democrats.

Though the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Bill Clinton, and both of the state’s Senators are Republican, the GOP has been a much less visible force statewide until recently.

Since the founding of the Democratic Party in 1828, 33 of the state’s 47 governors have belonged to the party, and Democrats have similarly dominated a number of other statewide offices. The state’s legislature has also been reliably Democratic.

But that history didn’t help Conway, the Democrat who ran against Bevin for the governor’s seat. Conway got the lowest percentage of the state’s voters of any Democrat since 1863, when Democrat Charles Wickliffe received just 20 percent of the vote.

Other statewide Democratic candidates also fell short, with only Attorney General Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes eking out narrow victories.

“I think it’s pretty clear Kentucky is moving in a red direction, being drawn deeper into the South,” Kenton County Democrats Chair Col Owens told media after Bevin's election.

Bevin’s election will have real policy implications. The governor’s removal of Beshear’s executive order raising the minimum wage for state employees to $10.10 means many state workers will continue to make $7.25 an hour, a level labor advocates say is too low. Economic think tanks like the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy have cried foul at the reversal and have implored Kentucky lawmakers to pass legislation raising the wage.

Meanwhile, Bevin has signaled he’s opposed to having minimum wages at all.

“The minimum wage stifles job creation and disproportionately impacts lower skilled workers seeking entry-level jobs,” Bevin’s executive order reads. “Wage rates ideally would be established by the demands of the labor market instead of being set by the government.”

Other measures, including a hiring freeze for state agencies, are similarly conservative.

Progressives in Kentucky have also decried Bevin’s move overturning an executive order that automatically restored voting rights for felons, a reversal opponents say will affect tens of thousands of Kentuckians.

Under Beshear’s order, voting rights were automatically restored as soon as a nonviolent former felon finished a prison sentence.

Bevin says he supports restoring voting rights for non-violent offenders, but says Beshear’s order wasn’t the proper way to do so. Now, former inmates will go back to having to request a restoration of their rights from the governor’s office.

Democrat lawmakers have vowed to fight to reinstate the policy.

“I am extremely disappointed with the executive order on felon voting rights, which to me goes against promises Governor Bevin made during his campaign,” said Democrat State Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville.

Bigger battles are coming. While campaigning, Bevin pledged to eliminate the state’s federally funded Medicaid expansion, which has helped more than 400,000 Kentuckians get health care. He has since moderated his stance, saying he would look at tightening restrictions on the expansion to cut the number enrolled. He has cited Indiana’s current system, which accepts more limited Medicaid expansion funds in exchange for the ability to require premium payments from those on the program.

Bevin has also pledged to take apart Kentucky’s state health care exchange, KYnect, which has proven one of the most successful state marketplaces created under Obamacare. Though President Barack Obama has an abysmal 70 percent disapproval rating in Kentucky, a fact that helped Bevin get elected, the state’s health care boosts under Obama’s signature law have proven a lifeline for many in the state and might be politically difficult to substantively alter.

Some conservative Democrats in the state legislature like Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo have signaled they’ll go along with many of Bevin’s proposals. But Stumbo and others criticize Bevin for his moves to roll back ACA benefits, signaling the first signs of pushback in what could be a long battle over the governor’s efforts to move Kentucky further to the right. ©

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