Gov. Matt Bevin doesn’t believe he’s said anything offensive. Not the time he called a Franklin Circuit Court Judge an incompetent hack. Not the time he guaranteed children were sexually assaulted because they may have been left alone while teachers protested in Frankfort. Not the time he openly questioned the Republican Senate president’s understanding of legislation in an open letter. Not the time he christened a veteran reporter “peeping Tom.”
No, that was all taken out of context, Bevin claims.
“There’s clearly a perception that you all have done a good job of trying to enforce, that is based on things that are not true,” Bevin said to a gaggle of reporters after a debate in Lexington. “The truth matters. Things I actually said should be what people care about. What people are worked up about, and I understand why, because we’re all human beings, is things they’ve been told were said. Things that were not true.”
Bevin is a crusader. He believes in right and wrong and if someone doesn’t agree with him, they are wrong. It’s what causes him to trash-talk opponents of pension reform and forms the backbone of the moral code that caused him to call for the first Republican Speaker of the House in nearly 100 years to resign amid a sexual harassment scandal.
It has not helped him build coalitions. It has left little room for compromise. It has bred enemies.
“As a politician, I think you need to be cognizant of what you’re saying and the impact,” said former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat from Pikeville. “You need to be careful of your rhetoric.”
Now, Bevin must confront his reputation and rhetoric as he faces reelection against Andy Beshear, the attorney general who’s been the governor’s chief political foil in Frankfort. The Democrat’s top campaign pledge is to return “civility” to the governor’s office.
“In a normal election, if this was the status quo where the governor’s favorability ratings were average, this wouldn’t even be a race,” said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University and former chairman of the Warren County Republican Party. “Bevin opened the door for Democrats to drive into.”
In typical fashion, Bevin isn’t backing down from his previous comments. Instead of an apology tour, he is painting the election as a diametric choice between liberal and conservative, banking on the fact that his Republican values will win the day and give him a second term in office.
“I don’t need this job enough to lie to any of you in order to get it or to keep it,” Bevin told a conference of city government workers in September. “I just don’t. So please expect that from whoever leads you in this position. That they shoot straight.”
On the kitchen table
Andy Beshear won’t admit that Bevin, 52, is the main character in this gubernatorial race or that his chances hinge largely on how many people the governor has angered.
Beshear, 41, dances around the issue. He calls Bevin a bully and says the governor is “erratic” and “unhinged,” but Beshear’s campaign operates under the belief that he needs to be a steady presence, the father at the head of the table who’s focused on “kitchen table issues” to provide a foil to Bevin’s unpredictability.
“I believe that the people of Kentucky are desperate for a governor focused on public education, pensions, health care and jobs,” Beshear said. “And regardless of the way this governor treats people — and he does not treat people well — his failure in these last four years on each and every one of those last four issues would have the people vote him out regardless.”
Beshear’s campaign wants the conversation to be about the issues, none more-so than public education and teachers. It’s an attempt to tap into the resentment many teachers feel over budget cuts and Bevin’s proposed changes to the Teachers’ Retirement System in a state where the school system is often the largest employer in rural counties. Beshear often opens his stump speech to supporters by asking if they’re ready to “end Bevin’s war on public education.”
Bevin has stubbornly pushed back. He’s said that funding for K-12 schools is at an all time high, even though he vetoed the budget that contains that spending, and that he’s put 100 percent of proceeds from the Kentucky Lottery into education. He’s defended his support of charter schools in part by pointing out that Beshear sends his children to private schools.
But on pensions, Bevin has done little to reassure teachers or city government workers who have faced tighter budgets from increasing pension costs. While Bevin points out that the latest budget fully funded both retirement systems — the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years — he also adamantly defends the need for structural changes to the pension system. He says there is a serious risk of the system going bankrupt and that he refuses to “kick the can” down the road.
That has undermined his pitch on education for some former teachers.
“Even though money has been put in, you’ve got a governor that says we need to make changes to the system and what does that mean?” said Steve Gillespie, a retired history teacher who spent 33 years teaching in Madison County. “What is the end game? You’re not telling us.”
As Beshear hammers on education, health care and pensions, Bevin shifts the conversation to social issues, the economy and his support of President Donald Trump.
“I think the Democrats are trying pretty hard to remind people why they don’t like Matt Bevin, but it’s not like Matt Bevin isn’t running a campaign,” Lasley said.
Mike Dean, 71, of Lincoln County says he supports teachers, but he has a hard time seeing how Bevin has done anything to really hurt anyone.
“Other than the teachers, it seems like he’s finally doing the right thing,” said Dean, a registered Democrat, at the Burger House in Garrard County. He said the governor needs more time to make changes to the economy: “stuff like that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Bevin knows he’s unpopular.
“It happens all the time,” Bevin said earlier this month when asked if he rubs people the wrong way. “And it’s called the truth.”
Bevin has told voters it’s just part of the package.
“Only one of the two of us is going to be the next governor,” Bevin says in his version of a stump speech. “It really is that simple. You don’t get part of me and part of him, part of the two of us and part of someone else you might like. It’s going to be one of the two of us.”
It’s a pitch designed to dismiss Bevin’s lack of popularity and convince voters to base their decision on their values, which he says match up better with Kentucky than Beshear’s.
So while Beshear has attempted to make the race about “kitchen table issues,” Bevin’s campaign and Republican groups supporting him have hammered the hot-button, partisan issues of the day, such as abortion, illegal immigration and LGBT issues.
That makes sense based on research of voter behavior, according to Emily Bacchus, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. Bacchus said studies suggest that how much people like Bevin won’t affect the outcome of the race very much.
“Popularity doesn’t actually drive voter choice,” Bacchus said. “It’s much more dependent on alignment with policy issues and partisanship.”
Bevin has leaned hardest on abortion. He firmly believes the majority of Kentuckians do not support abortion rights and he has often used his platform as governor to push for elimination of those rights.
“This is a state where we value the sanctity of human life,” Bevin said in August.
Beshear, who says he supports “reasonable” restrictions on abortion, has attempted to push the conversation toward Bevin’s “radical” stance on abortion.
“The danger is that this governor is an extremist,” Beshear said before talking about human trafficking victims he’s worked with as attorney general. “I believe that folks who are traumatized in those situations absolutely deserve options and this governor would take those options away.”
It’s the type of “civil” retort Beshear has used to counter Bevin’s attacks.
Bevin has called Beshear a fraud, a liar, corrupt, privileged, a socialist, accused him of taking blood money, of working against Kentuckians and of not understanding how the government works.
Beshear usually sticks to calling Bevin a bully.
“It’s very disciplined,” said Matt Erwin, a Democratic strategist. “They’ve been successful in not getting pulled into conversations they don’t feel are beneficial.”
Not all Democrats are so complimentary of Beshear’s strategy.
“I mean look, Andy Beshear is like eating vanilla ice cream with no toppings,” Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, a Democrat considering a run for U.S. Senate, said at a Chamber of Commerce Forum in July. “I mean it’s fine, like it’s fine, but you want some sprinkles or something.”
The Trump bump
Bevin also has a campaign tool Andy Beshear can’t match: President Donald Trump.
“Bevin has made the decision to make Donald Trump his running mate and that can help in places where he needs to shore up his support,” Lasley said.
When Trump held a rally in Richmond last year, members of the crowd booed Bevin loud enough that it was picked up by cameras. But as Bevin embarked on a bus tour of Western Kentucky last week, one of the signs shuttled to every stop was a picture of him and Trump getting off Air Force One.
In his speeches in Elizabethtown and Fordsville, Bevin espoused the president and vice president to crowds dotted with Make America Great Again hats.
“So many people who are in either Washington D.C and on some of our coasts, want so desperately to undermine the legitimacy of a man who is fighting every day to make this nation the greatest version of itself,” Bevin said.
The question that looms over Bevin’s campaign, though, is how much of Trump’s popularity is transferable to Bevin?
During their respective primaries, both Bevin and Beshear struggled to win over voters in parts of Eastern Kentucky that went heavily for Trump in 2016. The president’s support has the potential to help Bevin win those crucial votes.
“Donald Trump is going to fire up his base in Kentucky that may not be as fired up for Bevin as other voters,” said Tres Watson a Republican strategist. “I think a Trump visit ensures a victory for Bevin.”
The Candidates On The Issues
Question: What would tax reform look like in your administration?
Andy Beshear: Tax reform should lift up our families. I’ll repeal tax loopholes on private jets and ensure tax incentives only go to companies that create jobs that pay family-supporting wages. Matt Bevin opposes new revenue opportunities like expanded gaming but raised taxes on family expenses like car repairs and pet care.
Matt Bevin: Declined to answer
Question: What should Kentucky do to deal with the impacts of climate change?
Beshear: Climate change is real. At the same time, mining plays an important role supporting many Kentucky families. I’ll focus on an all-of-the-above energy approach that creates more good-paying jobs and lowers electricity bills. I’m proud to be endorsed by both the United Mineworkers of America and the National Wildlife Federation.
Bevin: Declined to answer
Question: How will you close the achievement gaps at public schools and improve educational outcomes for low-income and minority students?
Beshear: Our comprehensive public education plan starts with an education-first budget that will reduce class size, cut excessive standardized testing, and ensure our kids have the classroom supplies and in-school health care they need to get ahead. We’ll also prioritize expanding early childhood education, starting in economically disadvantaged areas.
Bevin: Declined to answer