On the night before Halloween last year — less than a week before the election — Matt Bevin and Mitch McConnell were at the same rally, a sleepy affair intended to drum up enthusiasm for what was thought to be a tight re-election race for McConnell.
Bevin danced, toyed and flirted with endorsing McConnell that night, but he never said it outright.
"I say with all due respect to a lot of folks who might say otherwise, sometimes we might need to get over it and move on," Bevin said. "We have new races to run and new decisions to make. There is too much at stake."
When asked afterward if his comment was an endorsement of McConnell, his only reply was "you've got ears."
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Now, months later, with McConnell perhaps the most powerful elected Republican in the country, Bevin is moving on to another high-profile race, announcing Tuesday that he is running for governor this year in an already crowded Republican primary. But former McConnell staffers and loyalists have neither forgotten nor forgiven Bevin's refusal to explicitly back their boss, even in the closing days of the race.
"I think Bevin disqualified himself with most Republican voters when he refused to endorse McConnell after the primary," said Josh Holmes, McConnell's top campaign adviser. "It said more about his willingness to put himself before the party and the commonwealth than anything anybody else could possibly say."
Bevin's campaign spokeswoman did not respond Wednesday to an emailed list of questions, including whether Bevin ultimately voted for McConnell in November. He faces Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, Louisville businessman Hal Heiner and former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott in the May GOP primary for governor.
Bevin was trounced last spring, losing 60 percent to 35 percent to McConnell, despite having a significant war chest, the backing of outside conservative fundraising groups and what were at the time anemic favorable numbers for McConnell.
McConnell's campaign played hardball politics, thrashing Bevin with opposition research that provided them with openings to accuse him of accepting bailouts, lying about his education on an online résumé and attending a pro-cockfighting rally.
McConnell's opposition research on the man they called "Bailout Bevin" destroyed the challenger's chances, and McConnell's staff intimated last year that more ammunition on Bevin went unused.
McConnell-allied Republicans also point to comments Bevin made about Kentucky's voters after losing to McConnell as evidence that he stands no chance of becoming a player in state GOP politics.
"We have increasingly less courage in our country, and that's something we suffer from," Bevin told Politico last August. "It's disappointing to me not even as much as a candidate but as an American, how apathetic and timid we have become as a nation."
Bevin told the Washington publication that Republican voters picked McConnell over him because they thought the senator could "bring home the bacon."
"There is still the perception, even though deep down everyone knows the federal government is broke, they think, 'Well, we might get some goodies,'" Bevin said.
Jesse Benton, who managed McConnell's campaign until resigning over concerns that his connection to a bribery scandal in Iowa could distract from McConnell's efforts, echoed Holmes' belief that Bevin "proved his campaign was all about his own ambition and ego."
"Mitch was a gentleman and extended several olive branches, but Bevin acted like a petulant child and slapped the hand of friendship," Benton said. "Republicans should not, and will not, take Bevin seriously."
A number of Republicans said Bevin was given a gift he foolishly chose not to open Monday when Grimes announced she was running for re-election as secretary of state.
Had Bevin decided to run against Grimes, McConnell Republicans believe he would have had a chance at rebranding himself with mainstream GOPers grateful he would take on a wounded Democrat for the good of the Republican Party.
When Bevin passed on that opportunity to instead pursue the governor's office, McConnell's allies quickly made clear, largely through social media, that they have long memories.
The concern for Republicans hopeful of winning the governor's mansion this year is that Bevin might not work to unify the party after the primary if he doesn't win, widening or even paving a path to victory for the presumed Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Jack Conway.
Scott Jennings, a former top McConnell aide who ran last year's super PAC efforts against Grimes, noted that Bevin has also said he did not support President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.
"I am concerned about the fact that this is someone who over the years has not been counted on to support Republicans in extremely important races," Jennings said. "I'm frankly concerned that if he doesn't get the nomination in this particular race he might try to subvert our nominee and help Jack Conway get elected."