Republicans made history on two fronts in Kentucky Tuesday night – not only did Matt Bevin become the state’s second GOP governor in four decades, but running mate Jenean Hampton became the first African-American ever elected to Kentucky statewide office.
Hampton’s historic accomplishment winning the lieutenant governor post was initially overshadowed by Bevin’s hard-fought gubernatorial race win over Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway, an off-year election battle that drew national interest.
But Hampton’s story is sure to draw more attention.
A Tea Party-aligned politician who like Bevin has not held office before, Hampton is an Air Force veteran who served during Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia. She was born in Detroit, and after her service in the Air Force spent 19 years in the corrugated packaging business.
She and Bevin both entered politics for the first time in the last couple years. Hampton lost a state legislative race in 2014, while Bevin famously lost to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in last year’s primary.
Now, the two will lead Kentucky, expanding the GOP’s hold on power in a state once dominated by Democrats.
“This is the chance for a fresh start, it truly is, and we really need it,” Bevin told a packed crowd at The Galt House in Louisville. “I believe this offers us an opportunity to change the tenor of what has become expected in the world of politics.”
The off-year election, one of many state and local contests held Tuesday across the country, was seen by some as a test for outsider candidates at a time when several such candidates are seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
Throughout his campaign, Bevin cast himself as an outsider, in both government and politics. The 48-year-old investment manager has never held public office and was shunned by the state’s Republican political establishment when he challenged McConnell in 2014.
The race is yet another rejection of Democratic candidates at the state level. Asked Wednesday whether President Obama feels at all responsible for the erosion in the ranks of Democratic office-holders at the local level, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stressed the president has “strong support for an agenda that has shown tremendous results in terms of allowing our country to recover strongly from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”
At the same time, he said the president obviously would like to see Democrats do better in these races.
Bevin’s campaign was mostly self-funded, and he preferred to speak to small gatherings of voters instead of courting influential donors.
Conway conceded the race at the Frankfort Convention Center, telling the quiet crowd it was not the result he had hoped for, “but it is the result we respect.” He said he called Bevin and wished him well.
Bevin ran an aggressive campaign, often arguing with reporters and even dropping by the state Democratic Party headquarters, twice, to argue with them about their signs criticizing him as dishonest. But it appeared Bevin was able to tap into voters’ growing frustration with their government to overcome any concerns they may have had about his temperament. He has promised some sweeping changes, most notably repealing the state’s expanded Medicaid program and the state-run health insurance exchange. Those decisions will affect the health insurance of about a half-million people.
Focus will almost immediately shift to the state House elections in 2016, where McConnell has vowed to flex his powerful fundraising muscle to help Republicans to take over the only Southern state legislative body controlled by Democrats.