Kentucky residents vote Tuesday on a successor to Democratic Governor Steve Beshear as county clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples has put the state in the national spotlight.
A focus in a national debate over gay rights, Kentucky has regularly sent Republicans to Washington, D.C., and Democrats to its governor’s mansion, which has gone Republican only once since 1971. Beshear is prevented by term limits from seeking reelection.
Medicaid expansion also has been a major issue in the campaign in which Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee, held a small lead over Republican nominee Matt Bevin in two late October polls.
Bevin, who won a four-way Republican primary by 83 votes with support from the conservative Tea Party movement, has said he wants to eliminate Kentucky’s Kynect health insurance program and use the federal exchange. Conway would maintain the state program.
“The race is Conway’s to lose,” said Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky associate professor who specializes in elections and voting behavior.
Bevin visited Davis the day of her release from a jail where she had served five days for defying a U.S. District judge’s order to issue marriage licenses.
Davis, a long-time Democrat from Rowan County in eastern Kentucky, won support from conservative Republicans with her marriage license stand and in September announced that she had switched to the Republican Party.
Conway as attorney general did not pursue appeals when a judge ruled Kentucky’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, and he opted not to pursue a special prosecution of Davis when a couple denied a license accused her of official misconduct.
The state legislature may consider bills granting religious freedom exemptions to officials like Davis who object to gay marriage or shifting licensing from county clerks altogether in its session that starts in January.
The Kentucky election is unlikely to provide insight into the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, Voss said.
Conway led Bevin 45 percent to 40 percent in a SurveyUSA poll for Louisville and Lexington media outlets with Independent Drew Curtis at 6 percent. SurveyUSA polled 798 likely voters by phone and mobile surveys from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26 for the poll, which had a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
A Western Kentucky University poll from Oct. 19 to Oct. 25 of likely voters found the same percentages for Conway and Bevin and the same margin of error.
Bevin is not a favorite of establishment Republicans. He ran as a Tea Party candidate against U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary and said in a September debate that he supported Ben Carson for president over Kentucky’s other Republican U.S. senator, Rand Paul.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender; Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Osterman)