I felt a great disturbance in the Commonwealth, as if thousands of voices suddenly cried out in horror and were suddenly silenced. Kentucky just suffered an abysmal election. Less than a third of registered voters (30.7%) participated, which means that Matt Bevin (R), the victor for governor, won with a scant 16%.
This utterly stunned disbelief was just how many people felt when Ronald Reagan won in 1980. Reagan, like Bevin, was long considered a political joke as this 1969 Mad Magazine parody shows. Matt Bevin is a Tea Party extremist who his fellow Republicans call a pathological liar. He claimed to have graduated from MIT and denies ever saying he would pull out of Medicare expansion. Both lies are on video.
Kentucky’s participation in Obamacare and Medicaid expansion had rapidly halved the state’s number of uninsured. Indeed, the set up of Kentucky's health exchange, Kynect, went so smoothly that it was held up as a national example. (By contrast, the federal end of the roll-out was initially plagued with hiccups.) Now those folks - over 400,000 - will probably lose their insurance. I have many friends who briefly enjoyed the first insurance coverage they had in their adult lives. Bevin has pledged to disconnect Kynect; but Gregg Stumbo, the Speaker of the state legislature, has vowed to fight him.
Matt Bevin's electoral opponent, Jack Conway, had previously failed to unseat Tea Party darling Rand Paul for the U.S. Senate. In both cases, Conway tried to appeal to the right and alienated his base. It is the standard playbook Kentucky Democrats use to lose an election.
There are too many truisms that describe this week’s election results: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Evil men succeed when good people do nothing. To those, I would like to add one of Harry Truman’s quotes on conservative Democrats: "When a Republican runs against a Republican, the Republican always wins." This is why you do not betray your base and pander to your opponents'.
The majority of Americans are not Republicans – certainly not hardcore conservatives. In fact, Democrats have historically enjoyed a slight edge in party identification polls. But despite this Republicans frequently succeed at the ballot box because they always vote. Accordingly, they benefit from low voter turnout. It's an old joke in Kentucky that they pray for rain on election day. But what is more, is that Republicans energize their base. Democrats are different: They hold their base at arm's length.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that that this does not work. Yes, sometimes particularly charismatic Democratic candidates can overcome this self-inflicted handicap, but they initially get in office because they do not have it yet. Disappointment comes later. We all recall that Barack Obama ran on "hope and change" in 2008, but in 1992, Bill Clinton ran on hope too. "The Man from Hope" had energized the base because his campaign embraced liberalism's accomplishments and played up that boyhood footage of him shaking hands with JFK. Declaring "the era of big government is over" came later.
Would this be a good time to mention that Bernie Sanders does better than Hillary Clinton in match-ups against Donald Trump? As Sanders understands, you need to energize the base.
It may be harder for Bevin to get Kentucky out than most people previously thought. Let's hope so.