WASHINGTON -- Republican officials here in the capital had dismissed Matt Bevin’s chances of winning the governor's race in Kentucky. They thought he was just too weird and wild, even in a state that has become deep red in presidential elections.
A Louisville businessman and tea party leader, Bevin (who was originally from New Hampshire) had had the reckless temerity to run -- and lose -- a race for the GOP Senate nomination last year against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the founder and leader of the modern Republican Party in the Bluegrass State.
But Bevin never stopped running. Earlier this year, he narrowly won a fluke, three-way race for the gubernatorial nomination. He was so anti-everything that, when asked whom he supported for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, he dismissed Kentucky’s other GOP senator, Rand Paul, and instead said that he preferred novice candidate Ben Carson.
Bevin was anti-Obamacare, anti-immigration, anti-tax, anti-media (constantly at war with the state's largest newspapers and television stations) and was barely on speaking terms with Paul, McConnell and just about everyone else.
Except the voters.
Sensing an opening in the late polls, GOP officials in Washington -- at McConnell’s urging -- began pouring last-minute money and resources into the state.
On Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, Bevin easily dispatched the Democrats’ shopworn best hope, Attorney General Jack Conway, who had lost a Senate race to Paul in 2010. Polls that showed the race neck-and-neck had been wildly wrong, with Bevin winning by a comfortable 8-point margin.
Democrats were flabbergasted -- but shouldn’t have been.
Conway was a weak and unpopular candidate (a Duke alum from Louisville); his campaign consisted of negative attacks on Bevin. Kentucky is culturally conservative and uneasy in the multicultural era of Barack Obama, and had gone for Paul in the tea party’s first insurgent wave in 2010. Bevin, who had no experience in elective office, fits the mood of the electorate today: utterly contemptuous of the powers that be in politics, and looking for leaders in new places.
Republicans will see Tuesday’s results, with good reason, as a harbinger of national success next year. There is history to support them. In 1967, a Republican named Louie Nunn won the governorship of Kentucky -- the first to do so after World War II. Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, and always viewed Nunn’s win as the first sign of a GOP wave.
In 1998, Republican Ernie Fletcher won a House race in (then) normally Democratic Lexington. Two years later, George W. Bush made his way to the White House -- followed by Fletcher’s win in the governor’s race two years later.
Bevin, only the third GOP governor in Kentucky since 1947, may be a harbinger, too. But as a Carson fan, he's probably not a GOP mainstreamer in the mold of Nixon or Bush.
No one knows the history better than McConnell. Ever since he was student council president at the University of Louisville in 1964, he has dedicated himself to two goals: becoming the second Henry Clay (who was Senate leader) and establishing complete GOP control in what used to be a Democratic state.
He has now achieved both. No wonder that, at the age of 73, McConnell is shopping around his autobiography with the assistance of DC super-agent Bob Barnett.
McConnell and the GOP not only beat Conway, they also snuffed out (for now) the career of the up-and-coming, 40-year-old state auditor, whom Democrats were grooming to take on Rand Paul in the Senate race next year.
Auditor Adam Edelen, elegant and well-spoken and a darling of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Aspen Institute, lost his race for re-election. GOP local and national organizations shrewdly targeted Edelen precisely because he was the Democrats’ consensus pick to take on Rand.
Now the job of taking on Paul may be left to Andrew Beshear, the son of the current Democratic governor, Steve Beshear. Andrew apparently narrowly won his race to succeed Conway as Kentucky’s attorney general.
The Senate contest will be tough: Paul is not wildly popular, but a presidential election year is likely to bring out a big GOP vote. The last Democrat to win in Kentucky was a Clinton, in 1996. But a lot has changed since Big Dog Bill was around, and Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a tougher sell.
So, Mitch stands astride the state.
But the party McConnell built in Kentucky -- and the one he ostensibly presides over in the U.S. Senate -- is not the machine-like conservative establishment that he envisioned when he started out as an aide to moderate GOP Sen. Marlow Cook decades ago.
McConnell, and other GOP “leaders,” have to deal with the likes of Paul and now Bevin -- tea partiers who want to tear up the pea patch, that is, government.
They can all agree on trying to get rid of Obamacare – another clear message from Kentucky.
But what about immigration, and taxes, and subsidies for big business, and the rest?
What kind of GOP has Mitch built? We are about to find out.
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