Politics & Government

Is Donald Trump following Matt Bevin’s path to victory?

Donald Trump, left, and Matt Bevin, right.
Donald Trump, left, and Matt Bevin, right. Associated Press, staff file photos

In early October, Gov. Matt Bevin stood in the Capitol Rotunda, a few short steps from his office, and recorded a video because he had caught wind of a Democratic news conference that would call his record on education funding into question.

“They’re going to come in here and hypocritically lie to you about the focus of education and that of this administration for education,” Bevin said, staring unflinchingly at the camera.

Earlier, Attorney General Andy Beshear released a text that Bevin had sent him, calling Beshear’s office “an embarrassment to the commonwealth.”

It was a wild day by Frankfort standards, but in the grand scheme of 2016, it was nothing out of the ordinary. For more than a year, the national press had been following another unorthodox politician vowing to shake up the system: Donald Trump

“These guys are not in the system and they don’t care about what the political rules are about,” said Les Fugate, a Republican lobbyist and senior vice president of RunSwitch Public Relations. “They will forge their own path.”

For Bevin and Trump, that path has been similar in many ways.

Both were educated in the private school system before becoming wealthy businessmen. Both ran for office as political outsiders promising to disrupt the establishment and rallying the support of those who felt left behind by their government. Both overcame long odds in a vicious primary full of personal attacks to become the major nominee of their party.

Bevin was elected despite trailing in pre-election polls. Now, as the presidential race grows tighter in swing states, the question lingers: can Trump pull a Bevin-like upset on Tuesday?

“I think he’s going to win,” Bevin told WHAS radio in Louisville on Tuesday. “I think he’s losing in the same way I was supposedly losing a year ago at this time.”

Outsiders

Bevin prided himself in being the outsider candidate, the one who was going to disrupt the system. And his chilly relationship with the establishment helped him solidify those credentials.

“Every Lincoln Day dinner I’ve been to across the state, you won’t see an elected official wearing one of my stickers,” Bevin said in May 2015. “They’re scared to.”

He sees the same in Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump is an interesting fellow…” Bevin told the Washington Post before his election. “Part of what people appreciate about him is the very same thing. He doesn’t owe anybody anything.”

Bevin and his top officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

Both Bevin and Trump heavily self-funded their campaigns during their primary elections, relying on personal wealth they had amassed while in the business world as they campaigned in their respective vehicles — Bevin’s golden Chevy Suburban and Trump’s personal airplane.

Despite their wealth — or perhaps because of it — both candidates played well with voters who felt left behind by establishment politicians.

“They both have this innate ability to talk and relate to a middle-class voter who feels forgotten,” Fugate said. “When (Bevin) goes out, he kind of looks and feels like a middle-class voter and it feels very natural.”

Bevin is at home in a button-down shirt and blue jeans, chatting with voters. Trump, meanwhile, has won voters over with his ability to “tell it like it is.”

Both have displayed a fondness for social media — potentially helped by the two former Bevin aides who now work on Trump’s communication staff — that has allowed them to deliver their message directly to the masses.

“The electorate is much more willing and open to outsiders,” said Trey Grayson, former Republican Secretary of State. “They increasingly feel like the institutions have let them down.”

Grayson should know. His 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate, an election where he was handpicked by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell to replace former Sen. Jim Bunning, was upended by an outsider in his own right — Rand Paul.

For Bevin and Trump, their primary elections were fraught with mudslinging. While Trump appeared in the middle of the fray, incrementally taking out each candidate, Bevin presented himself above the bickering, allowing him to pull off an upset.

Bevin wasn’t afraid of a fight. He engaged in daily battles with the media throughout his fall campaign. Calls to see Bevin’s tax returns went ignored. Questions about previous comments were rebuffed.

“They’re like angry dogs,” Bevin told the Washington Post during the campaign. “They know I don’t respect their sloppy journalistic abilities or their yelling. … They’re not used to people who aren’t either in agreement or trying to get favor from them. I don’t need them.”

Trump has been dogged by the press as well, decrying the “media conspiracy” against him.

That ability to pick fights has occasionally been a liability for both Trump and Bevin. The temperament of both candidates served as a target for Hillary Clinton and Jack Conway.

“Neither appears to have particularly thick skin,” said Matt Erwin, a Democratic consultant in Kentucky. “Politics and diplomacy is the art of addition and if you don’t have a thick skin and your first reaction is always to attack, addition becomes difficult.”

Endorsements

By the time Bevin stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention to announce that Kentucky cast 17 votes for “the next President of the United States, Mr. Donald J. Trump,” he was a sitting governor standing next to a grinning U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He had come a long way.

Just two years earlier, McConnell steamrolled Bevin’s first dalliance into politics, running negative ads about his Tea Party challenger on the same day Bevin announced his candidacy.

After Bevin lost, he refused to endorse McConnell in the general election, raising the ire of establishment Republicans in Kentucky.

“You can’t punch people in the face, punch people in the face, punch people in the face, and ask them to have tea and crumpets with you and think it’s all good,” Bevin told Politico in 2014. “Life doesn’t work that way.”

Trump has had his own clashes with the establishment. More than 160 Republican leaders have refused to endorse, or unendorsed, Trump.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan notably wavered before endorsing Trump shortly after Trump won the Republican nomination, causing Trump to return the favor by refusing to endorse Ryan in his reelection bid against a Tea Party candidate until the last minute.

“You’re a change agent,” Grayson said. “And when you change things, you’re shaking up the status quo and you’re making people mad.”

McConnell refused to talk about Trump through the month of October, instead focusing on maintaining the Republican majority in the Senate. A week before the election, he finally told a rally of supporters that the country needed to elect Trump.

Bevin, though, had won the support of the establishment crowd by the time the general election rolled around.

Paul appeared with Bevin on the campaign trail even though Bevin said he supported Ben Carson over Paul in the GOP presidential primary

And at an annual dinner for Kentucky Republicans, Bevin mocked speculation of a lack of unity in the party by making a video showing him wearing Mitch McConnell apparel.

Trump on the other hand has not seen the establishment rally around his candidacy.

The two most powerful political leaders in Congress have refused to talk about Trump of late, although House Speaker Ryan, R-Wisconsin, did say he voted for Trump.

Leadership

Since his election, Bevin has applied his outsider mentality to Frankfort, perhaps providing a window into what a Trump presidency might look like.

“Bevin looks at Frankfort and at our state and his style is to change things,” Grayson said.

That desire for change has caused Bevin to clash with Democratic leaders at the Capitol. Regardless of whether Bevin started the battles, he hasn’t been reluctant to engage.

“I think Gov. Bevin and Donald Trump both seem to be 100 percent certain in their correctness, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but certainly can be a hindrance in government where compromise is always the name of the game,” Erwin said. “Sometimes an effective leader in an effective organization has to set aside themselves and anything they want in order to get results.”

For Grayson, Bevin’s results have been positive, so far.

“Bevin has turned out to be a better governor than people thought he was going to be,” he said.

Grayson said Trump and Bevin both share the entrepreneurial mindset, meaning they look at government like a business. That mindset revolves heavily on accomplishing tasks, he said.

Others say Bevin’s no-holds-barred approach makes him appealing as a politician.

“People are attracted to the idea of a strong leader…” Fugate said. “I think people are attracted to the idea of someone who can break through the clutter.”

Where the two men seem to differ the most is in their brand of Republican ideology.

“Clearly in his personal behavior, Trump is not a conservative and is not a moral conservative. He’s mostly an economic conservative,” said Don Dugi, a political science professor at Transylvania University. “He wants policies that favor business… Bevin is more obviously a social conservative and a libertarian in some ways.”

Trump’s campaign has been mired in allegations of misogyny and sexual assault while Bevin has a reputation as a religious man and loving father of nine.

And though Bevin and Trump both come from a business background, that doesn’t mean Trump will match Bevin’s approach to governing.

“There’s no guarantee that a business leader is going to be effective at leading a governmental structure,” Dugi said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics

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