By Hastings Wyman –
Social issues played an important role in the Republicans’ impressive strength in the South in the Nov. 3elections. The GOP gained the governorship of Kentucky, easily reelected the governor of Mississippi, and held on to the state Senate in Virginia, with hot button social issues playing a role in most of the Republican victories. In addition, in Texas, Houston voters defeated an important gay rights initiative.
These results fly in the face of the argument that the current slate of Republican presidential candidates, who range from conservative to very conservative to VERY conservative, will hurt the party at the ballot box, at least in the South.
In the Kentucky governor’s race, industrialist Matt Bevin, a Tea Party favorite who opposed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the 2014 primary, was behind in the polls right up till Election Day, then won a stunning 9-point victory, 53% to 44%, over Jack Conway (D), the state’s Attorney General. Independent Drew Curtis received 4%.
The issues that helped Bevin were school prayer, abortion, gay rights and gun control. “Those were all losers for Democrats in Kentucky,” says veteran Blue Grass political journalist Al Cross, who added that “Obama has been pretty bad for Democrats.” In addition, Bevin backed a right-to-work statute for Kentucky.
Bevin was especially helped by the publicity focused on Kim Davis, the clerk of court who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Conway, as attorney general, had declined to appeal the ruling against Davis. “When Kim Davis was jailed was the worst day for Conway,” says Cross.
Moreover, President Obama is highly unpopular in Kentucky and the pro-Bevin super PAC’s TV spots emphasized that Conway “voted for Obama twice.” Obama’s unpopularity was underscored by new EPA restrictions on coal mining, a major Kentucky employer that was already in decline.
Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, says that because so many voters are angry, “Bevin gained from Donald Trump’s personality.” Says Cross, “Bevin was an outsider in a year of Trump and Carson.”
In Virginia, “It was a status quo election,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Not a single incumbent lost in either house.” He notes that more than $40 million was spent and “the Democrats picked up one House seat.” At least one social issue played a key role. According to an analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Republican Glen Sturtevant defeated Democrat Daniel Gecker for an open state senate seat because rural Powhatan County had an unusually large turnout for the
GOP, due to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) highly publicized support for gun control legislation.
Sabato does not see the elections as a harbinger of things to come in Virginia in 2016. “The real impact is that McAuliffe will not get the help he needs in the last two years of his term.”
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant (R), as expected, easily defeated his unknown opponent, truck driver Robert Gray (D), by 66% to 34%. The GOP also expanded its majority in the state House of Representatives from 67 to 73, to 49 Democrats, in the process defeating House Minority Leader Bobby Moak (D).
And in Houston, voters rejected a comprehensive gay rights measure endorsed by Mayor Annise Parker by a vote of 61% to 39%. The main argument of the opposition was that by including “gender identity,” the law would allow men dressed in women’s clothing to use women’s rest rooms. Supporters called it HERO, for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. Opponents dubbed it the Bathroom Ordinance.