The Gubernatorial Elections of 2015: Hard-Fought Races for the Open Seats

Only three governors were elected in 2015. Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are the only states that hold their gubernatorial elections during the year prior to the presidential election. This means that these three states can be early indicators of any voter unrest that might unleash itself more broadly in the next year’s congressional and presidential elections, and we saw some of this in the two races where candidates were vying for open seats. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) was elected to a second term, running in a state that strongly favored his political party. Both Kentucky and Louisiana have elected Democrats and Republicans to the governorship in recent years, and each race was seen as up for grabs by many political pundits. In the end, each election resulted in the governorship turning over to the other political party.

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About the Authors

Thad Beyle is a professor emeitus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Syracuse University, he received his doctorate at the University of Illinois. He spent a year in the North Carolina governor’s office in the mid-1960s, followed by two years with Terry Sanford’s “A Study of American States” project at Duke University. He has also worked with the National Governors Association in several capacities on gubernatorial transitions.

Jennifer M. Jensen is deputy provost for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and in governmental relations. She recently authored The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington (University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Though Tea Party sentiments played a significant role in the primary elections in Kentucky and Louisiana, none of the general elections reflected the vigor that the Tea Party displayed in the 2014 gubernatorial elections. With only two open races and one safe incumbent on the ballot, the 2015 elections were generally not characterized as a major bellwether of the upcoming 2016 presidential election season. The Kentucky race, however, foreshadowed some of the turmoil that would play out as the presidential primary races geared up.

The Kentucky election was for an open seat as Gov. Steve Beshear (D) was term limited. Democrat Jack Conway, the sitting state attorney general, had an easy win in the Democratic primary over retired engineer and state employee Geoff Young, who had run previously for a U.S. House of Representatives seat and a statehouse seat.

The Republican primary election was hard fought, and in the end only 83 of the 214,193 total votes cast separated winner Matt Bevin and second-place finisher James Comer. Two other candidates, Hal Heiner and Will Scott, received a combined 73,316 votes compared to Bevin’s 70,480 and Comer’s 70,397, so Bevin won by a plurality, winning fewer than one-third of votes cast in the four-way race.

Bevin, a businessman and founder of several companies, including Integrity Asset Management and Veracity Funds, entered politics when he ran against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a five-term incumbent and then Senate minority leader, in the 2014 Republican primary. Though ultimately he lost badly to McConnell, he had name recognition when he entered the gubernatorial race as an anti-establishment candidate who ran an outsider’s campaign against two Republicans who had held elected office. Bevin funded the vast majority of his primary spending himself, contributing more than $2.4 million to his own campaign. His antiestablishment message resonated at a time when Tea Party sentiments were running high, and it is likely that he was helped when a former girlfriend of primary candidate James Comer alleged that Comer abused her when they dated in college; Comer and Heiner subsequently got into a spat when Comer accused Heiner of orchestrating the allegation.1

In many ways, Bevin was not a strong candidate. With his history of mudslinging with McConnell in the U.S. Senate campaign, and his refusal to endorse McConnell in the general election, he was not loved by the party establishment. McConnell backers had framed Bevin as both untrustworthy and inconsistent in describing his own record and issue positions, charges that continued during the race for the governorship. For example, Bevin stated that he was opposed to gambling, yet his businesses had invested heavily in casino stocks.2 He argued that he had opposed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, bailout, but he had signed a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission supporting TARP.3 He backed away from his initial pledge to end the state’s Medicaid expansion, which would have dropped hundreds of thousands of Kentucky residents from Medicaid eligibility.

Yet at a time when large segments of voters were disillusioned with politics as usual, Bevin’s overall message resonated. Campaigning on a platform to improve the economy, roll back the Common Core curriculum in schools, pass right-to-work legislation to eliminate the requirement that employees must pay dues to unions, and fight the Obama White House on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, Bevin kept the general election race a tossup until the end.

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The fact that Bevin could keep the election competitive speaks to the power of national political mood and the dissatisfaction with Obama that was widespread in Kentucky.4 The same disillusioned Kentucky voters who would throw their support to Donald Trump in Kentucky’s Republican presidential primary in March 2016 turned to Bevin in the governor’s race. Bevin was likely helped by county clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to certify gay marriages in her Kentucky county two months before the election. Davis’s stand made national headlines and galvanized evangelical voters. Bevin visited her when she was jailed for contempt of court, saying that the state did not have the right to force a government official to act against religious beliefs. All this helped Bevin stay competitive in a state that had elected only two other Republican governors since the 1940s. 

In the general election, Bevin’s campaign was helped by sizeable contributions from others. As the campaign kicked into high gear in the summer, the Republican Governors Association ran television ads supporting Bevin. RGA support did not continue in the final weeks of the campaign, but it provided critical steam for Bevin.5 

Kentucky voters were very familiar with Democratic Party nominee Jack Conway, who had served two terms as state attorney general, and who had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010, losing to Rand Paul in the general election. Conway’s issue positions were in line with those of the Democratic Party, including raising the minimum wage, maintaining the state expansion of Medicaid that would bring coverage to 10 percent of the state, maintaining the state’s labor laws regarding union membership, and strengthening early childhood education.

Conway had deep support from the Democratic Party as he ran for governor, and he spent more than twice what Bevin spent in the general election campaign. The spending by the candidates is only one source of campaign funding in the race, however, as the political parties and other political groups made their own expenditures. The Republican Governors Association spent $5 million on the race, some of which came in the form of blistering attack ads about Conway in the crucial final weeks.6 The Democratic Governors Association-funded superPAC Kentucky Family Values spent at least $3.5 million supporting Conway.7 The race was widely acknowledged as an especially bitter one.

In an election year that favored outsiders, Conway had a difficult task: turning out Democratic voters in Louisville and Lexington without losing the more conservative vote in the rest of the state. A candidate who was considered by many to be a strong policymaker but by some a slightly stilted campaigner, he was unable to beat Bevin’s outsider candidacy at a time that favored political outsiders. Conway also may have been hurt by his decision as state attorney general not to appeal a federal judge’s decision to strike down part of the state’s ban on gay marriage.8 In the end, Bevin beat Conway 52.5 to 43.8 percent, winning 106 of 120 counties. His running mate for lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Kentucky. 

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As the Kentucky governorship was changing hands from a Democrat to a Republican, the Louisiana governorship was changing hands from a Republican—the incumbent governor, Bobby Jindal, who was term limited—to a Democrat. In the end, state Rep. John Bel Edwards won the governorship with 56.11 percent of the vote in the general election.

Louisiana has a nonpartisan blanket primary for all candidates. In this so-called jungle primary, the top two vote-getters participate in a runoff election if there is no majority winner. Because the 2015 gubernatorial election would be before his U.S. Senate seat was up for reelection in 2016, U.S. Sen. David Vitter was able to throw his hat in the ring for governor while knowing that if he lost, he could still run for reelection in the Senate—and if he won, as governor he could appoint the replacement to complete his term in the Senate. (By the time of the general election, Vitter had announced that if he lost the race for governor, he would not run for reelection to the Senate.)

Vitter, the most conservative candidate in the race, remained the leading Republican in the race throughout the gubernatorial primary, though two other experienced Republican candidates maintained strong showings throughout the campaign. In the end, Vitter beat the next biggest vote-getter, former lieutenant governor and sitting public service commissioner Scott Angelle, by just over three points.

Longstanding personal issues dogged Vitter throughout the campaign. In 2007, three years into his Senate term, Vitter’s phone number was linked to telephone records of a high-end escort service. Vitter stated that he had called the service, and he apologized for “a grave sin,” but denied ever using prostitutes and claimed that he was the victim of a political smear campaign.9 Considered extremely vulnerable at the start of his 2010 Senate reelection bid, he ran a strong campaign in a year when anti-Barack Obama sentiment was high in Louisiana, and ultimately won reelection with more than 56 percent of the vote. Yet the family values conservative was never able to shake concerns about his personal integrity. The prostitution allegations were raised by his opponents during both the primary and runoff elections. The three Republican candidates for governor—Vitter, Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne—engaged in bitter infighting that hurt Vitter’s ability to run a strong campaign in the runoff. (Angelle did not endorse a candidate in the runoff election; Dardenne endorsed Vitter’s opponent.)10

Most pundits gave the advantage to Vitter, and spring and summer polls showed him with more support than Democrat John Bel Edwards. Edwards did not garner much attention early in the race and ran a thinly staffed campaign. He was a strong candidate to challenge Vitter in the runoff, however, and as fall began and the primary campaign heated up, polls started showing that Edwards had a shot against Vitter in the runoff.11

Edwards, a West Point graduate, former U.S. Army Ranger and social conservative, took a strong anti-abortion stance during the campaign.12 On bread-and-butter issues, he took more traditional Democratic stances on issues such as education funding. He advocated cutting both spending and tax breaks to address the state’s enormous budget deficit and was the only major candidate to state early that he would accept Medicaid expansion funding from the federal government. As the race moved into summer, Edwards began to get more attention and more financial support.

The four major candidates spent nearly $30 million on their campaigns, and outside groups spent heavily in the race, particularly as the runoff heated up. Counting these expenses, approximately $50 million was spent on the race.

Mississippi’s gubernatorial election was a foregone conclusion, with the most interesting activity in the primary elections rather than the general election. Incumbent governor and former lieutenant governor Phil Bryant ran for a second term, and he drew no strong competitors. With more than $2.4 million on hand at the end of 2014,13 his financial resources were more than an order of magnitude greater than all other candidates combined. 

That no other candidate in the race but Bryant had held or even run for office previously speaks to the strength of the Republican Party in statewide races. Since 1991, a Democrat has won the governorship only once—Ronnie Musgrove in 1999—and he won with a plurality of 49.6 percent of the vote against Republican Mike Parker’s 48.5 percent. That race was ultimately decided by the Mississippi House of Representatives.14 The three other most recent governors were all Republicans who were elected to two terms before being termlimited out of office.

Bryant was elected in the 2011 general election by 22 points over Democrat Johnny Dupree, former mayor of Hattiesburg. Bryant entered the 2015 election season with polling numbers that were strong enough to indicate that it would be very unlikely that a Democrat would win the governorship for the first time in 16 years. This is despite the fact that nearly three years into his first term in the office, Bryant was number one on the list of “most boring governors,” as ranked by the percentage of respondents who responded in the “don’t know/don’t care/refuse to answer” categories of gubernatorial approval polls in 35 states. Rather than stating that they approved or disapproved of Gov. Bryant, 28 percent of Mississippians responded with ignorance or indifference when they were asked about their governor—more than in any of the states with polling data to analyze.15

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As an incumbent governor, a strong conservative in a red state, and a well-funded candidate, Bryant never had viable competition during his reelection campaign, but he did draw a primary opponent. Bryant’s opponent in the Republican primary, Mitch Young, was a U.S. Navy veteran who criticized Bryant for not adequately funding education and not doing enough to improve the economy.16

Though no Democrat had a serious chance to defeat Bryant, the Democratic primary was the most interesting part of the Mississippi gubernatorial election season. Two of the three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination were women, which was especially notable because they were the first women to run for governor of Mississippi since 1983.

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Vicki Slater was considered the favorite in the Democratic primary. An attorney with no elective office experience, she previously had been president of the Mississippi Association for Justice, a trial lawyers organization.17 During her campaign, Slater criticized Bryant for refusing to expand Medicaid coverage in Mississippi, as states are able to do under the Affordable Care Act. She also argued that the state lost jobs under Bryant and that Bryant did not adequately fund education. Slater was the best funded of the Democratic candidates, spending just over $260,000 on the primary election.

Dr. Valerie Short, an obstetrician-gynecologist and U.S. Air Force veteran, also campaigned for expanded Medicaid and more funding for public schools. If she had won, Short would have followed Johnny Dupree to become only the second African-American gubernatorial candidate to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Mississippi. She spent approximately $48,500 on her primary run.

The third Democratic candidate—long-haul truck driver and retired firefighter Robert Gray—was the least likely to win, and so it was particularly surprising when he won 79 of the 82 counties. He had neither raised nor spent any campaign funds before the August 4 primary. His mother did not know he was on the ballot before she voted for him, and he was too busy working on his truck to vote in the primary himself.18 Despite a lack of a campaign, he won just shy of 51 percent of the vote compared to Slater’s 30 percent and Short’s nearly 19 percent. His win was widely attributed to two factors: being listed first on the primary ballot, and being the only man running against two women. No woman has ever received either party’s nomination for governor.19As a candidate who was unknown to voters, he may have also benefitted from having a racially neutral name. Gray is African-American, but was far less visible during the campaign than either Slater or Short.

Gray spent less than $8,000 campaigning for the general election.

Campaign Spending
The Mississippi race was the least expensive of the 2015 gubernatorial campaigns, both in aggregate and by the amount the campaigns spent per vote in the general election. At $6.12 per vote, the Mississippi gubernatorial election is one of the 20 states where total candidate spending was less than $10 per vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. Louisiana could be described as having moderate spending in its gubernatorial election, not considering spending by outside groups.

In the most recent gubernatorial campaigns nationwide, several saw candidate spending surpass $25 per general election vote. Kentucky fits into this category. No doubt some of Kentucky’s high price tag stems from the fact that multimillionaire Bevin provided substantial self-funding, especially early in the race – spending that led to an arms race between candidates and outside groups in both the Republican primary and the general election as other candidates outspent Bevin. 

1 Gerth, Joseph. 2015. “College Girlfriend Says James Comer Abused Her.” Louisville Courier-Journal online edition, May 5. Accessed March 2, 2016; Sonka, Joe. 2015. “How Matt Bevin (Most Likely) Won a Thrilling GOP Primary.” Insider Louisville May 20. Accessed November 15, 2015.
2 Gerth, Joe. 2015. “Bevin’s Gambling Stance, Investments at Odds.” Louisville Courier Journal online edition, July 21. Accessed November 3, 2015.
3 McCormack, John. 2014. “Securities Law Expert on Matt Bevin’s TARP Letter: ‘There’s an Argument That He Actually Violated the Law.’” The Weekly Standard February 13. Accessed March 1, 2016.
4 Cizzilla, Chris. 2015. “Matt Bevin is the Next Governor of Kentucky. He has President Obama to Thank.” Washington Post Online, The Fix blog, November 2. Accessed November 3, 2015.
5 Barton, Ryland. 2015. “Republican Governors Association Stops Airing Bevin Ads.” WFPL News (Louisville), September 29.. Accessed November 3, 2015.
6 Gerth, Joseph. 2015. “Bevin Leads GOP Wave, Routs Conway.” Louisville Courier Journal online edition, November 4. Accessed March 1, 2016.
7 Loftus, Tom. 2015. “Conway Has Big Money Edge Over Bevin.” Louisville Courier Journal online edition, October 8. Accessed March 1, 2016.
8 Gabriel, Trip. 2014. “Kentucky Law Official Will Not Defend Ban on Same-Sex Marriage.” New York Times March 5, A17.
9 Moller, Jan. 2010. “Sen. David Vitter Wins Re-Election in Remarkable Comeback.” Times-Picayune, online edition, November 2. Accessed March 18, 2016.
10 Robertson, Campbell. 2015. “A Red State, but Still an Uphill G.O.P. Bid.” New York Times November 20, A18.
11 See the Huffington Post Pollster blog for historical polling data from the Louisiana gubernatorial primary election. Accessed March 18, 2016.
12 Robertson, Campbell. 2015. “Louisiana Democrat Leapt Big Obstacles to Beat Vitter in Governor’s Race.” New York Times November 23, A9.
13 Wyman, Hastings. 2015. “Mississippi Democrats Set for Another Shellacking.” Southern Political Report March 10. Accessed March 12, 2016.
14 Salter, Sid. 2015. “Looks Like Mississippi Will Have a 2015 Governor’s Race.” Hattiesburg American February 23Accessed March 12, 2016.
15 Hickey, Walt and Harry Enten. 2014. “The Most Boring Governors in the United States.” article posted August 15, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2016.
16 Pettus, Emily Wagster. 2015. “Five Seek Nominations for Mississippi Governors’ Seat.” Hattiesburg American August 2. Accessed March 12, 2016.
17 Pettus, Emily Wagster. 2015. “Five Seek Nominations for Mississippi Governors’ Seat.” Hattiesburg American August 2. Accessed March 12, 2016.
18 Robertson, Campbell. 2015. “Shy trucker emerges as Democrats’ pick for Mississippi governor.” New York Times September 8, A1, New York edition.
19 Jackson Free Press Editorial Board. 2015. “Vicki Slater for Governor.” Jackson Free Press July 31Accessed April 18, 2016.