City Vote Set the Stage for Upset in Ky. Governor’s Race

Political newcomer Matt Bevin won rural Kentucky by a landslide. But the foundation of his victory was laid in the state’s most populous counties.

voting_button_final-01Republican Matt Bevin won Kentucky’s rural voters by a landslide in Tuesday gubernatorial election. But the foundation of Bevin’s upset victory over Democrat Jack Conway rested in the state’s metropolitan areas.

Bevin, a political novice who narrowly won his primary bid for the Republican nomination earlier this year, thumped Democrat Conway by a margin of about 9 points. Recent public opinion polls said Conway, the state’s attorney general, had the advantage. Voters Tuesday said otherwise.

A big part of Bevin’s statewide victory was a stronger-than-usual showing in the state’s metropolitan counties.

Bevin’s margin of victory in metropolitan counties was slim – less than 1 percentage point and only a net advantage of about 4,600 votes out of more than half a million votes cast in those counties.

But compare that to the 2011 gubernatorial election, when Democrat Steve Beshear won among metropolitan voters by a margin of 120,000 votes, or 27 percentage points.

Had Democrat Conway performed with urban voters in 2015 the way Democrat Beshear did in 2011, Conway would have won the governor’s seat, even while losing among rural voters by a wide margin.

A standard formula in recent national elections has been for successful Democratic candidates to rack up surplus votes in cities, overcoming any disadvantage they face with rural voters. This was President Obama’s formula for victories in both 2008 and 2012. Conversely, President George W. Bush made up for a disadvantage among urban voters with wide margins in rural and many suburban areas.

But Republican Bevin won metropolitan voters outright and sealed his margin of victory in Kentucky’s small cities and rural counties. He won rural counties and counties with small cities by more than 20 percentage points.

Conway, the Democrat, won in Fayette County (Lexington) and Jefferson County (Louisville) and a handful of other counties. But Bevin chewed away at Conway’s advantage in traditionally strong Democratic areas, enough to eke out a narrow victory in metropolitan counties.

The chart at the top of the story shows the geographic distribution of votes in the last two Kentucky gubernatorial races. The left side of the chart compares the performance of Democratic candidates in 2011 and 2015. The right side compares the performance of Republican candidates in those same elections. Blue bars represent metropolitan counties (or cities), red bars represent small cities (or micropolitan counties) and green bars represent rural counties (or noncore).

Turnout was also a factor in Tuesday’s election in Kentucky. The number of voters was up by about 180,000 – to the overwhelming benefit of the Republican candidate.

Bevin will be Kentucky’s second Republican governor in the past four decades. While the state’s congressional delegation is overwhelmingly Republican, having a Democrat in the governor’s mansion has created a unique political climate. Current Democratic Governor Beshear expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Kentucky was one of only three states in the Southern region to do so. And Kentucky is the only state in the South to operate its own health insurance exchange to market health insurance.

NBC News reports that the rate of Kentucky residents who are uninsured dropped from 14 to 9% over the past two years and that Medicaid rolls picked up 400,000 enrollees during that period.

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