Politics & Government

Gov. Matt Bevin is unpopular. Here’s why he’s still expected to win the GOP primary.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Goforth, a state Rep. from East Bernstadt, wants you to know that Gov. Matt Bevin isn’t running uncontested in Tuesday’s primary.

Goforth’s spent $750,000 of his own money to prove it. He’s purchased signs that say “Bye, Bye, Bevin” on one side and his name on the other. Goforth is sending out mailers that accuse Bevin of being insufficiently anti-abortion because the governor supported a candidate in Maine who was backed by Planned Parenthood. Goforth is also airing a TV ad with children bemoaning one of Bevin’s insults.

Bevin’s propensity for harshly criticizing his perceived political opponents has made him one of the most unpopular governors in the country. This potential vulnerability has attracted three opponents in the Republican primary, but they face an uphill battle in taking down a well-financed candidate with the power of the incumbency behind him.

“When you’re running against an incumbent, you’re asking people to fire him,” said Scott Lasley, former chairman of the Warren County Republican Party and chairman of the political science department at Western Kentucky University.

Goforth’s campaign has largely been centered around Bevin, positioning himself as “someone who can win in November and will preserve our conservative values.”

Goforth, who appeared Friday at Lexington’s Thoroughbred Park as part of a state-wide tour, criticized Bevin over his rocky relationship with the Republican-led legislature, his inability to pass pension reform (Goforth signed onto a bill written by Republican educators that never received a vote in committee) and Bevin’s temperament.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Goforth, state representative for the 89th district, discussed his campaign against incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin at Thoroughbred Park in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

There has been little public support for Goforth among his colleagues in the General Assembly, which he chalked up to their fear of retaliation from Bevin. Goforth was first elected in a special election in 2018, and has complained about House Leadership quashing his bills for political reasons.

“I have not asked them to submit themselves publicly for the scrutiny from this governor, because he’s a very vindictive person and they should not live in fear because they’re supporting me,” Goforth said.

The anti-Bevin vote, however, could be split. There are two other Republicans on the ballot who are running limited campaigns: William Woods and Ike Lawrence.

The Bevin campaign did not respond to a request Friday for comment.

Bevin has mostly ignored his Republican challengers and is instead looking to the general election. He has spent more than $700,000 in the primary, but most of it was on consultants, such as California-based Fred Davis.

Bevin turned down invites to debate his Republican challengers, but released videos before two of the Democratic gubernatorial debates, calling the Democrats out of touch with Kentucky voters. Goforth on Friday challenged Bevin to debate him, saying Republicans deserve to “see and hear why we are different.”

State of the Commonwealth (2)
Gov. Matt Bevin said in his state of the commonwealth address on Wednesday that “We’ve also cleared up the backlog of rape kit tests.” But nearly 2,000 kits remain untested, according to Kentucky State Police. AP Timothy D. Easley

Bevin has highlighted a close relationship with the White House and has received national support, most notably from the Trump administration, which has twice dispatched vice president Mike Pence to Kentucky to campaign for the governor.

“I am here not only to give our support,” Pence said at a March fundraiser for Bevin. “But I bring the full and total endorsement of the 45th president of the United States, President Donald Trump.”

Bevin also has the backing of the Republican Governors Association, which has spent nearly $100,000 on digital and radio ads so far. It has bypassed the primary and sought to weaken the eventual Democratic nominee while promoting Bevin’s record.

“Our primary mission has been to focus on the fact you have three potential Democratic nominees, all of whom are extremely out of touch with Kentucky and Kentucky voters,” said the RGA’s Amelia Chassé Alcivar.

Bevin has used his status as governor to hold town halls across the state to discuss his accomplishments in office. He has sometimes been met with critics, even in Republican-friendly areas of the state like Martin County. In 2018, he even got booed at a Trump rally.

Still, Bevin’s unpopularity is not expected to be enough for Goforth to win the nomination. A recent poll by the national firm Cygnal had Bevin ahead by 38 points: 56 percent for Bevin and 18 percent for Goforth.

“I would think there’s enough for Goforth to have a very credible showing,” Lasley said. “I would think it’s unlikely for it to change the outcome Tuesday.”

Depending on how much of the vote Goforth is able to grab, it could impact the perception of Bevin’s strength heading into the general election.