How Kim Davis, David Vitter's Vices and a Big-Rig Trucker Could Steer the 2016 Conversation

PHOTO: Pictured from left, David Vitter, Kim Davis and Robert Gray.Getty Images | AP Photo
Pictured from left, David Vitter, Kim Davis and Robert Gray.

It may feel like the 2016 race to the White House has sucked all the oxygen out of politics. But the living, breathing state of smaller-scale politics is on full display in three governor’s races that have seen lively debates over immigration and gay rights, the scope of the federal government and the role of Confederate history in modern America.

Some of the same themes that have helped frame national conversations will appear on state ballots in coming weeks, with Louisiana casting a first round of votes Oct. 24, followed by Nov. 3 elections in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Will Bobby Jindal bashing and a tough stance on immigration play well with the Louisiana electorate? Do Kentucky voters see Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis as a symbol of religious liberty or a scofflaw who violated same-sex couples’ legal right to marry?

Will a conservative sweep in Mississippi put the nail in the coffin of Democratic politics in the American South? State voters will answer these questions not next year, but this week and next month, and variations on these themes are likely to permeate the 2016 conversation and beyond.

Here’s what to watch and everything you need to know in 2015 politics:

PHOTO: Pictured from left, David Vitter and John Bel Edwards.Getty Images | AP Photo
Pictured from left, David Vitter and John Bel Edwards.

The Anti-Jindal Rumble in the Jungle:

LOUISIANA GUBERNATORIAL RACE

Under the rules of Louisiana’s unique gubernatorial process, known as the “jungle primary,” there is no party primary. Instead, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, are placed on a single ballot, and assuming no candidate clears 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters have a runoff.

That means Louisiana’s Oct. 24 Election Day probably won’t be the end of that story. Louisiana’s race has no incumbent because sitting governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal is term-limited from the governor’s mansion. But the specter of Jindal’s deeply unpopular legacy looms large over the contest.

It’s something the 2016 presidential candidate doesn’t advertise on the campaign trail, but with local polls showing Jindal registering a dismal home-state approval rating, the competition to be seen by Louisiana voters as the least Jindal-esque is playing heavily in this fight. Jindal has been slammed for perceived fiscal mismanagement, with voters blaming him for inheriting a $1 billion budget surplus and leaving office with a projected $1.6 billion deficit. Front-runner U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, is leading State Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Demorcrat, and two trailing contenders, according to local polling.

WHY IT MATTERS:

Vitter is running on the hope that Jindal’s unpopularity will overshadow his own flaws, which includes a 2007 prostitution scandal that his opponents have resurfaced in the campaign. A polarizing figure, Vitter has courted a fair amount of political and personal controversy during his 11 years in the U.S. Senate, and has seen his approval ratings suffer.

He drew attention in 2009 when he became one of two senators to vote against Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as secretary of state, and has continued needling Clinton over her private email server.

Vitter’s bill to defund so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to transfer illegal immigrants to federal custody will be brought to a vote Tuesday, and the senator recently waded into the simmering debate over the use of fetal tissue for scientific research by joining a chorus of senators to sign Sen. Rand Paul's letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Planned Parenthood. He cast Senate votes that helped narrowly defeat the Manchin-Toomey proposal in 2013 to expand background checks on gun sales, and helped kill the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 supported by President George W. Bush, and Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy.

Immediately after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on marriage equality, Vitter irked liberals by tweeting a picture of himself holding a bag of Chick-fil-A, the fried chicken chain that made waves in 2012 when its president described same-sex marriage as a kind of sacrilege (he later called his statements a mistake). The Internet quickly descended on the senator, with critics pointing out that Vitter’s repeated rendezvous with hired sex workers should disqualify him from commenting on the sanctity of marriage.

Vitter confessed in 2007 to being a long-time client of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the infamous “D.C. Madam,” who made millions arranging trysts for an upscale clientele in the nation’s capital (Vitter’s shameful chapter has been reprised in an attack ad). Despite a blemished record of his own, Vitter is hoping that campaigning on his contrasts with the tarnished sitting governor, including his openness to Medicaid expansion that Jindal shunned, will carry him to victory.

Kim Davis: Conscientious Objector or Scofflaw?:

PHOTO: Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway during the Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate Oct. 6, 2015, in Danville, Ky. Matt Bevin during the Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate Oct. 6, 2015, in Danville, Ky.AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway during the Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate Oct. 6, 2015, in Danville, Ky. Matt Bevin during the Kentucky Gubernatorial Debate Oct. 6, 2015, in Danville, Ky.

KENTUCKY GUBERNATORIAL RACE

Kentucky’s Democrat Attorney General Jack Conway is in a tight race with businessman and Tea Party darling Matt Bevin, according to local polls.

WHY IT MATTERS

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis opened a new front in the impassioned debate over LGBT rights versus faith-based objection to gay marriage when she disobeyed her legal duty to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. To the extent Kentucky’s gubernatorial race is a referendum on this polarizing issue, Democrat Jack Conway’s record makes him the clear-cut marriage equality candidate.

While the attorney general disappointed some liberals by declining to prosecute Davis for criminal misconduct, Conway earned praise for his previous decision not to defend Kentucky’s gay marriage ban in court.

Meantime, Kentucky Democrats believe that a Conway victory would shift momentum to Democrats seeking to capture the U.S. Senate seat held by presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul, who faces reelection in 2016. “Democrats believe if they win the governor’s race, it will prove they’re still viable in Kentucky and that will open up resources for their Senate candidate,” writes Scott Wartman on Gannett outlet Cincinnati.com.

An emboldened Democratic Senate challenge would come at a time of Republican handwringing over Paul’s decision to focus on his longshot presidential bid rather than securing Senate reelection.

As Attorney General, Conway distinguished himself as the only Democrat to join a lawsuit against the EPA over carbon emission regulations—a shrewd political maneuver in a state with an economy heavily reliant on the coal industry, and where Obama is deeply unpopular (the Democrat Conway actually brags about suing the president in a campaign ad).

Conway’s rival, businessman Matt Bevin, emerged as an ardent supporter of Kim Davis, and even engaged in a televised shouting match with CNN’s Don Lemon over the controversial clerk.

If his name sounds familiar it’s because you’ve heard it before: Bevin was Mitch McConnell’s primary opponent last year. They had a contentious primary battle, in which McConnell ended up easily beating the political novice, but not before Bevin angered establishment Republicans in the state and nationally. While Bevin’s plan to shut down Kentucky’s state-run health care exchange and eliminate Medicaid expansion conforms to mainstream Republican thinking, other positions are well outside party lines.

He believes the EPA has no authority over the states, and previously supported a push to legalize cockfighting (which he later denied.)

Democrats speculate Bevin’s fraught relationship with the GOP base explains the Republican Governors Association’s choice to stop running ads for him in September, which Bevin’s campaign hasn’t denied. The Tea Partier’s relationship to the establishment unraveled further when Bevin said during a radio interview that he would vote for Ben Carson over Kentucky’s native son Rand Paul—a slap in the faces of both Paul and McConnell, who’d previously endorsed Bevin and worked to rally the base around him.

Bevin quickly walked the statement back and Paul brushed the comment off, but the fracas appears to have increased tensions between Bevin and the party base. The right-wing candidate’s uneasy marriage to mainstream Republicanism is perhaps best captured in a quote by Larry Cox, the former state director for Mitch McConnell.

Asked by Cincinnati.com how he would vote on Nov. 3, Cox replied, “With reluctance.”

Is the Democratic Party Dead in Dixie?:

PHOTO: Phil Bryant, left, and Robert Gray.AP Photo
Phil Bryant, left, and Robert Gray.

MISSISSIPPI GUBERNATORIAL RACE

The race for Mississippi governor pits Republican incumbent Gov. Phil Bryant against the Hail Mary campaign of Democrat Robert Gray, a genuine political unknown with zero governing experience. Gray, a shy big-rig trucker who uses the CB handle “Silent Knight” and lives with his mother, did not vote in the primaries, he says, because he was busy running errands and lost track of time.

WHY IT MATTERS

The Mississippi gubernatorial election has come to symbolize the nadir of Democratic sway in the American South after decades of decline. As the New York Times quoted one Mississippi Democratic insider: “The party that was once the alpha and omega of Southern politics is now having to explain that its headline candidate in Mississippi was elected on the following grounds: ‘He was the first name on the ballot, and he was a man.’”

Disillusioned Democrats also face the prospect that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, dubbed the “last Democrat in Dixie,” could lose a tough reelection fight. Republicans, on the other hand, may find campaigning easier than governing. Last week saw hundreds march in Jackson, demanding that Mississippi’s state flag be redesigned without symbols of the Confederacy, a movement that grew out of the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., perpetrated by a Confederate sympathizer. Gov. Bryant said the issue should be decided by voters rather than the state legislature.

But given Mississippi’s complicated initiative process, the earliest a flag redesign could appear on the ballot is 2018, which virtually guarantees the issue will continue to demand attention from the state’s next governor. With criminal justice reform emerging recently as an area of rare bipartisan agreement, governors of states like Mississippi, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S, may face mounting pressure to continue to act on the bedeviling issue, as Gov. Bryant has quietly done by reducing the inmate population by 3,000 people over the past several months.

Although Gov. Bryant’s long-odds challenge from surprise candidate Gray may sound like a bizarre anomaly, it’s not a first for Southern politics. Alvin Greene, another unknown, rocked the political world by winning South Carolina’s Democratic Senate primary race in 2010, spawning bemused New York Times headlines, “Who Is Alvin Greene?” and “Enigmatic Jobless Man Prepares Senate Campaign.”

By all accounts, however, Gray is expected to face a similar fate as Greene: trounced by a much more seasoned incumbent Republican rival.