LEXINGTON, Ky. — On Tuesday night, when it appeared Andy Beshear had opened an insurmountable but narrow lead over the incumbent Matt Bevin in the Kentucky governor’s race, my husband and I cracked open a bottle of bourbon and raised a glass in celebration. Pending the results of a likely recanvassing, it appears that our long, statewide nightmare may soon be over.
It has been four long, brutal years since November 2015, when Kentuckians elected Mr. Bevin by a narrow margin that, in retrospect, can be seen as a harbinger for the election of Donald Trump. Since then, Mr. Bevin has sought to strip away health care from hundreds of thousands of people statewide. Reproductive rights have been steadily eroded, until only one clinic is left to serve the entire state. Kentucky’s state-funded universities and colleges have suffered draconian budget cuts. Teachers’ pensions, already paid by them into the system, have been under constant threat.
Then there are his statements. Mr. Bevin has insulted women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. Kentuckians, the poor and most infamously, teachers protesting his pension cuts, accusing them of aiding in the sexual assault of children by their absences from the classroom.
Last night, as the votes trickled in, the Twitterverse and many national pundits had already begun to read the political tea leaves. Some proclaimed Mr. Beshear’s apparent victory as a warning for Senator Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020, and even for President Trump. “Mitch McConnell is in deep trouble in 2020,” Matthew Dowd tweeted. Wednesday’s episode of the popular New York Times podcast “The Daily” is devoted to Kentucky and explores “How Impeachment Consumed a Governor’s Race.”
But here on the ground, the situation feels different. Perhaps it is the remaining trauma from what happened nationwide in 2016. Or maybe it stems from being disappointed by Kentucky voters so many times before. Embedded in my scar tissue is this fear: that while relief is the prevailing mood on the morning after, in reality Mr. Beshear’s win is likely to be an anomaly rather than an omen — a victory resulting from a perfect storm along the lines of Senator Doug Jones’s 2017 election in Alabama.
For starters, Mr. Bevin’s approval numbers have been in the basement for a while. His rollback of the state’s Medicaid expansion — instituted by former governor Steve Beshear, his predecessor and Andy Beshear’s father — and the addition of stringent work requirements proved unpalatable even to many of the state’s conservatives. His twin political and verbal attacks on Kentucky teachers might have been fatal.
Despite Mr. Bevin’s best efforts to boost his re-election by tying himself to President Trump, this was a race that refused to be nationalized. It’s true that the president remains immensely popular here. But the prospect of Mr. Trump’s impeachment was not a factor among voters I encountered. Even the election eve presence of Mr. Trump at Rupp Arena, the temple of University of Kentucky basketball here in Lexington, and a three-city tour by Vice President Mike Pence just two days before the election were not enough to pull Mr. Bevin over the finish line. While thousands rallied and cheered for Mr. Trump and his call to identify the whistle-blower, not enough obeyed his plea to vote the following day for Mr. Bevin.
But to interpret this outcome as a sign of Mr. Trump’s and Mr. McConnell’s waning power in a Republican stronghold is shortsighted. One glance at the other statewide races tells the tale: As Mr. Trump himself tweeted Wednesday morning, all were won handily by Republicans. Mr. McConnell’s fabled political organization appears to remain intact. His protégé, Daniel Cameron, won the race for attorney general (replacing Andy Beshear) by a wide margin. Kentucky voters showed their disapproval by splitting the top of their tickets, making the governor’s election a referendum on Mr. Bevin alone.
One lesson from this race is that the final straw for many conservatives comes when they find their wallets and pocketbooks under siege. While Mr. McConnell is likewise historically unpopular in Kentucky, he is a brilliant politician who is canny enough to not go blatantly for the pocketbook. For his part, Mr. Trump continues to perpetuate the lie, believed as gospel by many Kentuckians, that a boom for the coal industry is just around the corner, bringing with it an influx of jobs and prosperity.
All this is not to detract from Mr. Beshear’s success. He remained focused on local issues throughout the race, running on a strong record as attorney general, an office he successfully leveraged to be a check on Mr. Bevin’s worst impulses. He committed to reserve a place at the table in his administration for rural Kentuckians, who have historically felt left out in favor of the state’s urban areas, and offered deft answers on rural policy on the stump and in debates. Mr. Beshear was also canny enough to enlist Rocky Adkins, his primary opponent from Eastern Kentucky, as an effective surrogate for his candidacy, a move that doubtless helped turn several mountain counties blue. The state Democratic Party has also shown exciting signs of reinvigoration and modernization under the leadership of its chairman, Ben Self.
There remains much to celebrate, not the least of which is a restoration of dignity and compassion to the governor’s office. In his victory speech last night, Mr. Beshear proclaimed “a pension is a promise” and pledged that among his first acts of governor would be to rescind the Medicaid waiver, to appoint a new state board of education and to restore voting rights to over 140,000 disenfranchised Kentuckians. But those breaking out the bourbon in the belief that Trump Fever is abating in Kentucky should put away their glasses.