How Did Matt Bevin, The Pardons Governor, Almost Win A Second Term?

Dec 31, 2019 at 11:14 am
productive discussions about politics

Former Gov. Matt Bevin pardoned a man whose family had donated to Bevin’s re-election effort, effectively reducing his sentence for a reckless homicide conviction and other crimes from 19 years to two. In another pardon, the outgoing governor not only reduced the sentence of a man accused of raping a 9-year-old but justified the decision with a rationale (he claimed the victim’s hymen was intact) that was sharply rejected by medical experts and (virtually everyone else). The overall pardon process seemed to be quintessential Bevin: supreme confidence in his own judgment; dismissal or disregard for the opinion of those who probably had more expertise on the issue; decisions he cast as moral judgments that may have really been about him helping his political allies.

Here’s the thing — the pardon process was on some level shocking, but it was not that surprising. Of course, Bevin would conclude his governorship with this kind of behavior — it was entirely consistent with his four years in office. And that brings me back to an issue that I think has been underexplored since November’s elections: Matt Bevin came really, really close to winning a second term, even though his propensity for erratic behavior was well-known to Kentuckians, who according to polling disliked him more than all but one (Rhode Island) state’s residents disliked their governor. Bevin lost by 5,189 votes, getting just under 49% of the statewide vote. Outside of the state’s two major urban areas, Louisville and Lexington, he was well ahead of Andy Beshear. Even in Louisville, the center of anti-Bevin sentiment, he won 32% of the vote.

I think the closeness of the result in last month’s elections and the pardons after them tell us two really important things about politics in this state — with national implications.

1. Republican Antipathy Toward Democrats is Very Powerful An exit poll conducted by a group of researchers found that Beshear won the votes of about 16% of Kentucky’s Republicans. Those Republicans breaking with the party is the story of the election — Beshear couldn’t have won without them. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Republicans (81% according to the exit poll) backed the governor.

Duh… partisanship you might say.

They are Republicans, so, of course, they voted for Bevin. I’m not so sure that’s a complete explanation. This was not like a federal election, when on some level it’s fairly logical to just ignore the names on the ballot and vote by party, since most members of Congress just vote along party lines anyway. Beshear, despite the ads Republicans ran in the state, hasn’t indicated he will try to implement the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Bernie Sanders agenda for Kentucky. Even if he were, he would have little power to do so — both chambers of Kentucky’s legislature are controlled by Republicans, so they can basically pass whatever they want and then override Beshear’s vetoes. Judges for the Kentucky courts are elected, so this is not like Republicans backing Donald Trump so he can appoint conservatives to the federal bench. Kentucky only has one abortion clinic open — and I doubt a bunch more will open under Beshear’s tenure.

In short, Kentucky Republicans could have concluded that Beshear would be fairly harmless and fairly powerless, cast Bevin aside because of his controversial behavior and been poised to retake the governor’s mansion in 2023. And that wouldn’t have been that odd. Gubernatorial elections don’t have the same partisanship patterns as do those of Congress or presidential races. So, Kansas and Montana have Democratic governors, and Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have Republican governors.

Why weren’t more Kentucky Republican voters willing to break with Bevin pre-election? I haven’t done a comprehensive study of Republican voters in the state. But my impression from interviews and my own research is Bevin’s strong support among GOP voters is another manifestation of what scholars refer to as negative partisanship — basically you are fine with your own party but truly hate the other one. For some Kentucky Republicans, I suspect they believe the messages implied by Fox News, some conservative talk radio hosts and, at times, the American president, namely that all Democrats are godless, baby-killing socialists. Such beliefs would make it virtually impossible to vote for even a fairly moderate Democrat such as Beshear.

I think there’s a second reason so many Kentucky Republican voters stuck with Bevin: GOP elites stuck with Bevin, basically communicating to conservative voters that the party really needed to re-elect him. In the runup to the election, I expected that a sizable bloc of prominent Kentucky Republicans would say that they would not support Bevin — or, at least, that they would not campaign for him. Why? Because privately, Republican elected officials in the state constantly complained about Bevin. They may have agreed with Bevin on policy, but they blanched at his style and approach in the same way that Democrats, the media, teachers and others in the state did. It was an open secret that James Comer, the Republican congressman who represents much of Western Kentucky, was rooting against Bevin winning a second term about as hard as was Louisville Democrat U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth.

But basically all of that GOP disdain for Bevin remained behind the scenes. The ranks of prominent Republicans publicly breaking with Bevin were very small.

I can guess at some obvious reasons why GOP officials would not break with Bevin: He had strong support from President Trump, and Kentucky Republicans were wary of not being aligned with the president; GOP state legislators don’t want to appear too liberal and potentially face challengers in their primaries; and perhaps they feared Bevin would look for revenge if he did win a second term.

But it’s worth thinking about this question: If Republicans in Kentucky are unwilling to criticize Bevin in the runup to an election, is there any Republican they would not defend? The national implications here are obvious: The Kentucky Republicans who stuck with Bevin are in some ways a microcosm of the national Republicans defending Trump despite his trying to force the Ukranian government to investigate the Bidens. The GOP defense of Bevin and Trump suggests aligning with a leader of their party, no matter how scandal-plagued, is better than voting for a Democrat.

You might argue this is still partisanship, as opposed to Republican partisanship. Maybe. But we don’t have a lot of Democratic elected officials who act in the manner of Bevin or Trump, so it’s not yet clear if Democrats would also defend their party leaders at basically all costs.

2. Voter Disengagement Is Real Forty-two percent of Kentucky’s registered voters cast ballots in this election. That was very high for a Kentucky gubernatorial race — but it’s fairly low considering all of the hype around this contest. The fact that the majority of Kentucky’s voters didn’t think the Beshear-Bevin race was worth even voting in while the state’s political class treated the race like it had monumental consequences is a hugely important disconnect. I worry that disconnect suggests that neither the candidates nor the media nor other institutions in the state are communicating the message that elections matter and that their results have a real impact on people. And maybe they don’t — what if the majority of Kentuckians don’t think it matters who the governor is, because they feel neither party is doing much to help them? I also worry that the kinds of democratic values that Bevin didn’t seem to share, such as a respect for a free press, also don’t really matter to a lot of voters and just seem like a bunch of elites bickering over irrelevant things.

There’s a national analogy here too. About 40% of Americans didn’t vote in the 2016 election and about 47% did not vote in 2018, after two years of news coverage casting Trump as uniquely threatening America’s values. What if a lot of voters skip the 2020 presidential race too, concluding it’s just another example of two political parties feuding and ignoring the public’s real needs?

To conclude, the pardons, in my view, are not that surprising, considering the man behind them. The question worthy of more exploration is how a man who was likely to issue pardons in this way was chosen by Kentucky’s voters to do so — and nearly chosen a second time? •

If you have suggestions or ideas for subsequent columns, please contact Perry Bacon at [email protected]