It looks like Republican Matt Bevin is winning an upset victory in the Kentucky governor race tonight. Kentucky counts its votes rapidly, and as this is written 104 of its 120 counties have reported results, and Bevin leads Democrat Jack Conway, the incumbent attorney general, by a 52 to 44 percent margin. This looks like an upset, because Conway has led in the polls, by 44 to 41 percent in the most recent RealClearPolitics average, and that's only with the help of a late Republican firm's poll showing an even 44 to 44 percent race. It's theoretically possible that the 28 counties not yet reporting could reverse the result, but exceedingly unlikely. The commonwealth's two largest counties, Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington), which both voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, have already reported. And none of the non-reporting counties, almost all of them in the Central time zone area, voted for Obama or for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in her race against Senator Mitch McConnell in 2013. Western Kentucky used to be solid Democratic territory. It ain't no more.
Bevin's apparent victory comes even though Kentuckians have been pretty content with their two-term Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, and have elected Republican governors only twice since the 1940s. It comes despite Bevin's own particular weaknesses — his lack of experience in public office and some impolitic statements. It comes despite the fact that, as Harry Enten of fivethirtyeight.com noted Monday, governor elections have not followed presidential voting patterns as closely as elections to Congress have done in recent years. Enten, an excellent analyst, wrote, "You shouldn't be surprised if the race is as close as the polls suggest." Actually, it looks like it won't be close — and that the candidate who was behind in four of five public polls and tied in the other will end up with a solid margin.
Bevin's current 52 to 44 percent margin looks a lot like McConnell's 56 to 41 percent margin over Grimes, but falls well short of Mitt Romney's 60 to 38 margin over Obama in 2012. What's interesting is that the polls in the 2014 Senate race, like those in the 2015 governor race, showed the Republican running just about even with or even behind the Democrat, but the final returns showed or, at the moment, show the Democrat getting just about what he or she was polling and the Republican running far ahead of his poll numbers. Tentative conclusion: lots of Republican-inclined voters, as reflected in national polls on the party and its leaders, are reluctant to tell pollsters how they're voting; maybe in their disgruntlement they haven't really decided to pull the Republican again. But they end up voting Republican anyway, even for Bevin, who had his problems as a candidate, and for McConnell, who had weak poll ratings because of his role as Senate party leader.