ALEXANDRIA, Ky. — Bonnie Cronin proudly calls herself “a staunch Republican,” an avid supporter of President Donald Trump and a conservative on key issues in national politics.
But she turned against her state’s Republican governor this week. While Cronin voted for Gov. Matt Bevin in 2015, she cast an unapologetic vote for his Democratic challenger on Tuesday. Enough Kentucky Republicans followed suit to deny Bevin reelection, a shift that many political analysts view as an unsettling sign for two other Republicans who need suburban support to win reelection next year: Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But in the southern suburbs of Cincinnati, traditionally more conservative than other suburban areas, Republicans say their vote against Bevin has little to do with their views on national politics. Cronin, for one, remains supportive of Trump and doubts McConnell is at risk of repeating Bevin's fate.
"The differences between voting for a Democrat governor and a Democrat senator is having the ability to vote on national issues," said Cronin, 59, listing the state matters on which Bevin disappointed her.
“He made promises that he wasn’t keeping. He said he was pro-education, but brought in charter schools,” said Cronin, a retired school speech therapist. “His whole attitude was that you had to bend to his will.”
Even as Kentucky’s contested gubernatorial election grinds on, pending a recanvass of the votes, Democrat Andy Beshear’s apparent victory over Bevin is sparking intense debate here about whether the results were an anomaly or a sign the political winds may be shifting, even slightly, in this Republican-leaning state.
The current vote has Beshear defeating Bevin by about 5,000 votes, a win that included flipping several suburban counties from red to blue. Whether those communities will stay blue is a key question as the state heads toward a potentially competitive U.S. Senate race next year, with Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired Marine and combat pilot, campaigning to unseat McConnell.
There is little doubt that Trump will win Kentucky in 2020, but in this suburban part of the state, where new housing developments packed with well-educated voters meet the tobacco fields and the hills of Appalachia, the results of Tuesday’s election contain a potential red flag for Republicans nationwide.
The fast-growing counties of Boone, Campbell and Kenton have traditionally been solidly Republican, and Trump won a combined 62% of the vote in 2016 after he swept all three. In 2015, Bevin carried those three counties by a combined 16,500 votes after he won about 59% of the vote.
On Tuesday, Beshear flipped Campbell and Kenton counties amid a surge in turnout that was replicated statewide in urban and suburban communities. As a result, Bevin's overall margin in suburban Cincinnati cratered to just 3,745 votes.
D. Stephen Voss, an associate political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the results in northern Kentucky as well as in Fayette County, which includes Lexington and University of Kentucky, should worry Republicans nationwide. Beshear won about 73,000 votes in Fayette County — about 4,000 more votes than even Democrat Hillary Clinton won there during the higher-turnout 2016 presidential election.
"The problems the GOP nationally faced in 2018 have carried over to 2019 in Kentucky," Voss said. "This is yet another election where there was a rebellion against the GOP among educated, relatively affluent, center right communities, and if that happens in 2020, not only are Republicans going to suffer a bloodbath nationwide, they will need to start worrying about a permanent realignment."
But Kentucky Republicans note the party's losses Tuesday were limited to the governor's election. GOP candidates easily won five other statewide, nonjudicial races, including Daniel Cameron in the race for attorney general. Cameron is a former aide to McConnell, and his unsuccessful Democratic challenger attempted to link him to his former boss.
And they note that Kentucky has a long tradition of electing Democratic governors. Bevin was only the state’s second Republican governor in the 50 years. In governor-elect Andy Beshear, son of former Democratic governor Steve Beshear, Kentucky voters found a known quantity whose moderate positions on gun control and abortion made him palatable.
For those reasons, some Republican voters here say Bevin's loss was not a referendum on the GOP.
At Ingram Spare-Time Grill, a cozy mom-and-pop restaurant serving up fluffy omelets and slabs of bacon, diners still think that McConnell, who has been in office since 1985, will coast to reelection next year.
“I don’t think McConnell is vulnerable. Realistically, this is a Republican state; the urban centers are up for grabs, but that is all,” said Keith Brown, 57, a health-care worker who lives in this suburb 15 miles south of Cincinnati. He voted for Bevin both times he was on the ballot.
During his four years in office, Bevin got in a high-profile spat with teachers over pay raises and pensions, triggering an army of educators to campaign heavily against him. Voters also expressed displeasure with the way Bevin handled other local issues, including plans to replace the aging Brent Spence Bridge, the main span connecting the state to Ohio. A few days before the election, he pitched tolling the bridge, which was highly unpopular with voters.
Heather Lawson, 32, and a grill cook at Spare-Time, said it was the local issues that soured her on Bevin after she voted for him in 2015.
"I didn't vote for [Bevin] because of what he was doing to the teachers, taking away their pensions," Lawson said. That displeasure has not transferred to Trump or McConnell, she said.
"I will vote for him in 2020," she said of Trump.
Cara Ryver, a middle school teacher in Flemingsburg, an hour southeast of Cincinnati, also said her vote against Bevin on Tuesday had nothing to do with Trump. A lot of people in Kentucky's educational ecosystem felt "hoodwinked" by the governor, she said.
"As soon as he started running his mouth about teachers, it didn't take long for us to see the real Bevin," said Ryver, 38.
Unlike Beshear, McGrath would have an uphill climb trying to unseat McConnell, she said. Other voters agree.
“I really think this is a one-off thing. I think McConnell has been around long enough and has enough support that I don’t really see it working the same way for [McGrath] that it did for Beshear,” says Winchester resident Tim Toews, 40, and a training coordinator at a hemp processing plant. Toews said he voted for Bevin in 2015, but not on Tuesday, citing his treatment of teachers.
"The state has a history of giving Republican governors a chance every once in a while, and then they do something dumb and lose it," Toews says.
But Voss, the political science professor at the University of Kentucky, noted a region doesn't realign from one party to another overnight. As was the case in northern Virginia, Voss said it takes voters time to become comfortable voting for another party, and that is why he said Kentucky Republicans should be nervous about Tuesday's outcome.
"People will vote against a party a couple times, without realigning, but eventually, that becomes a habit," Voss said.
Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, also believes the results cannot just be dismissed as backlash to Bevin.
In March, Clayton was quoted in local media as saying that Trump's continued popularity in Kentucky, as well as McGrath's unsuccessful bid for Congress last year in central Kentucky, had left him convinced that the state was on an unstoppable march to the right.
In an interview Friday, Clayton said he is now not sure whether he stands by that assessment.