No, Republicans didn’t steal Kentucky

One of the biggest surprises of Tuesday’s elections was Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin’s victory over Jack Conway, the state’s Attorney General. Conway had enjoyed a modest but consistent lead heading into the final stretch of the campaign — even the internal polls Bevin’s campaign released showed Conway winning the race — but Bevin came out on top by about nine points.

Going into Election Day, there wasn’t even a good causal story suggesting that Bevin had momentum; by all accounts, he had run a lazy campaign, showing up late to fundraisers and not doing much by way of turning out his base. People watching the race from outside of the state even assumed that Bevin’s promise to undo both of current Governor Steve Beshear’s actions to implement Obamacare — setting up a popular state-run health insurance exchange and expanding Medicaid — would hurt him with Kentucky voters. After Bevin’s win, most of those outside observers sobered up and remembered that, as politics is increasingly national, all you have to do in a conservative state like Kentucky is say “Obama” and you’re all but guaranteed at least 50% of the vote.

However, it’s still tough to reconcile a large electoral loss with a large pre-election lead. In this case, it’s even tougher to reconcile given that the phantom Republican momentum in Kentucky seems to have been confined to Bevin. While he dramatically overperformed on Election Day, that overperformace didn’t extend down the ballot. Democrats Andy Beshear and Alison Lundergan-Grimes won election for Attorney General and re-election for Secretary of State, respectively, and both of them received more votes than Conway did at the top of the ticket. Given that Lundergan-Grimes ran a highly-nationalized race against Mitch McConnell for Senate last year, one would think that any [Kentucky Democrat]/Obama claims would hit her as hard as they hit Conway, right?

Something doesn’t add up.

As Karoli Kuns at Crooks and Liars and Brad Friedman at BradBlog outline, there’s at least some reason to believe that the results in Kentucky warrant a second look. Here’s Karoli, from yesterday:

Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin, via Wikimedia Commons

Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve heard that Conway was linked up with Obama and so the kneejerk reaction was to vote for his opponent. Okay, but Steve Beshear embraced Obama and the Affordable Care Act and didn’t have a problem getting elected.

Name recognition? Alison Grimes and Andy Beshear are from long-time Kentucky political families. But Conway was the Attorney General. It’s not like he was a disappearing snowflake there.

At first, I thought maybe it was the Kim Davis debacle, given that Conway played a role in the whole hoopla around that. But he won Davis’ county by three percentage points, so it’s not that either.

In order to believe these results as they are right now, we have to believe Democrats split the ticket and voted for Dems everywhere but the Governor’s race. I’m not sure I buy that.

Finally, I’m told the RNC put through a huge ad buy in the final week of the campaign. That’s all fine and well, but ads don’t move that many people one way or the other, as we’ve seen with other failed investments in ads.

You know what that leaves for me? Voting machines.

Especially since voting machines have proven to be particularly problematic in Kentucky. From the Huffington Post in 2009:

  • Clay County Clerk, Freddy Thompson, 45, allegedly provided money to election officers to be distributed by the officers to buy votes and he also instructed officers how to change votes at the voting machine. …
  • Election officer William E. Stivers, 56, allegedly marked votes or issued tickets to voters who had sold their votes and changed votes at the voting machine. …
  • Paul E. Bishop, 60, allegedly marked voters or issued tickets to voters who sold their votes and he also hosted alleged meetings at his home where money was pooled together by candidates and distributed to election officers, including himself. He was also accused of instructing the officers how to change votes at the voting machine.

Finally, as Karoli notes, Kentucky isn’t exactly using the most secure voting machines:

According to what I’ve been able to find, Kentucky is still using a lot of the ES&S machines known to have problems or be easily changed. Other counties use the Hart InterCivic systems. Hart is the company that Mitt Romney had ties to, as you may recall.

Entire white papers have been written on the vulnerabilities in the Hart systems.

It’s important to note that both Karoli and Friedman stop short of declaring the election fraudulent. They simply lay out their cases for why the results deserve a second look. But despite the fact that the circumstances of this election and Kentucky’s checkered past when it comes to election integrity are fishy, there are still a few problems with the theory that the election was stolen: Most importantly, Kentucky’s Secretary of State — as in, the person who oversees the administration of elections — is a Democrat, Alison Lundergan-Grimes herself. In order for there to have been a coordinated campaign of election fraud on a large enough scale to steal a statewide race, someone in the Secretary of State’s office would almost certainly have had to be in on it. A handful of county clerks can’t do that much damage on their own, and if they did, they would have done it to the other Democrats in statewide races.

What’s more, there’s a reasonable causal story that explains why Alison Lundergan-Grimes and Andy Beshear survived while Conway didn’t: they come from longstanding Kentucky political families, both of which have powerful political machines that Conway does not. (To get a sense of how far back these names go in Kentucky, Fred Beshear, current Governor Steve Beshear’s uncle, twice defeated Jerry Lundergan, Alison Lundergan-Grimes’s father, in Democratic primaries for House of Representatives seats in the 1970s.) This being the case, it isn’t really that hard to believe that a significant number of Kentucky Democrats (who outnumber Kentucky Republicans by party registration) split their ticket Bevin/Lundergan-Grimes/Beshear. Kentuckians have been voting for Grimeses and Beshears for decades.

All this is to say that there are simpler (and by the rules of Occams Razor, better) explanations for Jack Conway’s loss in Kentucky on Tuesday than “The Republicans stole it.” While the potential for election fraud is absolutely an issue that deserves more attention than it’s getting, I’m not ready to sound the alarms in this case.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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