Republican Matt Bevin's surprise win in the race for Kentucky governor came down a combination of opposition to the Affordable Care Act and family values.
When Bevin succeeds Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in December, he will become only the ninth Republican governor in the state's 223-year history.
Bevin received 52.5 percent of the vote Tuesday, while Democratic opponent Jack Conway received 43.8 percent. The prior GOP governor of the Bluegrass State, Ernie Fletcher, served a single term from 2003 to 2007.
Bevin, a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), made campaign promises to do away with Kynect, Kentucky’s own health insurance exchange.
As a result of the ACA and Kynect, Kentucky saw an 11 percent drop in people without health coverage between the end of 2013 and June of 2015, according to Gallup.
Supporters say abolishing Kynect could eliminate needed subsidies for 400,000 people in the state. Those who could no longer afford their insurance would also be subjected to federal fines under Obamacare's individual mandate.
But those concerns do not appear to have lessened voters opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which remains unpopular in Kentucky as in most states.
“Reforming Medicaid was important to a lot of Kentucky voters,” Heather Madden, advocacy projects manager at Independent Women’s Voice, told AMI Newswire Wednesday. Independent Women's Voice, a nonprofit advocacy group, conducted issue messaging related to the Affordable Care Act among undecided voters.
“Campaign rhetoric and campaign promises are a matter of signaling to people core values,” University of Kentucky Prof. Stephen Voss told AMI Newswire. “And he clearly wanted Kentucky voters to know, especially conservatives here to know, that his basic impulse was against Obamacare. Now that he’s looking at taking over as governor-elect, he’s going to have to look at exactly how to implement those values.”
Kynect was imposed by executive action, meaning Bevin could easily dismantle it, but Voss doesn’t see that happening right away.
“Usually you expect, and voters tolerate, some massaging, some adding of nuance to certain election rhetoric,” Voss said. “He’ll have to figure out the speed at which he’s willing to do it, and what the cost and benefit of different solutions are.”
Bevin's anti-Obamacare campaign needed to overcome strong state political traditions. Kentucky voters broadly lean conservative on social issues but favor extensive social programs.
The strong Christian right in Kentucky emphasized social issues including same-sex marriage, rather than economic policy. Voss said Bevin's enthusiastic embrace of these issues
— which included a meeting with embattled Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis
may have been a bigger factor than his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Bevin supported Davis in her decision not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“If he wanted to claim that he was against what was taking place in terms of the moral shift in the country, Kim Davis was a handy local opportunity to send that signal to voters statewide, especially voters who favor the Christian right,” Voss told the American Media Institute. “As messaging goes, it was certainly effective.”
But Madden noted that Bevin's long-shot candidacy actually picked up steam as he targeted Obamacare, encouraging the Republican Governor's Association to reverse an early decision not to bother with the Kentucky race.
"In some ways this effort kept donors' eyes on the race as winnable," she said. "Ultimately it came down to Obamacare.”
In his acceptance speech, Bevin echoed the sentiment of his core conservative base.
“I’m grateful for the fact that everything that afforded me this opportunity came because I was raised by a man and a woman who were raised with things that were of an eternal value, eternal consequence,” Bevin said.
Bevin did not talk about policy Tuesday night. He gave thanks to his voters for a victory he said will change the course of the 2016 election cycle.
“Do not fail to take the high road as we have done up to this point, continue to take the high road because this is the opportunity for Kentucky to be a beacon to the nation. The values that we hold, the principles that we hold, the work ethic that we hold. The high road that we will take, this will change the tenor of what happens in the 2016 race, it truly will,” Bevin said.
Historical voting patterns do not agree with Bevin, elections analysts say. According to Voss, the voter turnout in 2016 will be a lot higher than Tuesday's. Only 30 percent of Kentucky voters came out for this election.
Higher turnout brings voters of lower socioeconomic status, Voss said, who tend to vote for Democrats.
“That won’t be very powerful here because many of our low-income voters are Republican in their leanings, especially in social issues, but nationwide the effect will be more dramatic,” Voss predicted. “There are places where it really helps the democrats get higher turnout.”