LOUISVILLE — In a preview of what promises to be a bitter fall campaign, Kentucky's two major-party candidates for governor traded verbal blows as they faced off Thursday at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's Measure the Candidates forum.
Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate, and Republican Matt Bevin delivered their biographies before exchanging a series of sharp attacks over health care, spending and where they were raised.
Conway went on offense early, repeatedly stating he was born and raised in Kentucky. He offered little subtlety as he mentioned repeatedly that Bevin was from New Hampshire, recycled attacks used against Bevin by incumbent Mitch McConnell in last year's Republican U.S. Senate primary, and promoted his record as attorney general.
In return, Bevin blasted Conway as a career politician who has "strongly supported" President Barack Obama and his health care law and "refused" to defend the Kentucky Constitution's ban on same-sex marriage.
Both men harked back to their farming roots — Conway's family farm in Union County and Bevin's in New Hampshire — and showed little disagreement as they responded to questions from Farm Bureau board members that generally were about maintaining funding and tax levels for farmers.
Bevin said the state was "broke," but he answered affirmatively to questions about providing farm subsidies; tax exemptions; and funding for infrastructure, including better broadband Internet access.
Conway likewise pledged to be fiscally supportive of the state's agriculture sector, rattling off prosecutions and settlements he has pursued as attorney general.
Some of the sharper exchanges came as Conway, using the words of McConnell's staff, called Bevin an "East Coast con man" who was opposed to last year's federal farm bill.
Bevin shot back that Conway was lying, saying he was in favor of the parts of the bill that helped farmers but opposed the inclusion of funding for food stamps in the legislation.
Bevin did say last April that he was opposed to the bill because of the "welfare" programs in it that were "an insult to farmers," but he also said that "one of the reasons" he was opposed to the bill was because he thought subsidies disproportionately helped rich farmers.
The forum took a decidedly heated turn toward the end, when the candidates were asked how they would pay for Kentucky's health care exchange and expanded Medicaid eligibility.
Conway said that there were problems with the federal health care law and that there are "too many people" on Medicaid, but he said the state's implementation of "Obamacare" was "a shining example of a state that's doing it right." He said it would be callous to "kick a half a million people" off their health insurance on Day One as governor.
"Kentucky has been an example of when you put rhetoric aside and you say we're going to do things the Kentucky way, ..." Conway said.
Bevin responded that it was an "absolute lie" for Conway to say Bevin had pledged to end health care for thousands of Kentuckians on Day One, calling the charge "unbecoming of the office you're running for."
However, when Bevin unveiled his "Blueprint for Kentucky" in February, he said that ending Kynect, the state's health insurance exchange, and tightening eligibility requirements for Medicaid would "absolutely" be his first order of business.
"No question about it, I would reverse that immediately," Bevin said at the time.
He also accused Conway of not having any experience in the private sector. When Conway said he had worked as a private attorney, Bevin said Conway had done so only between political campaigns.
"That's not a real career," Bevin said.
Conway accused Bevin of offering "Tea Party platitudes" and being untrustworthy.
At the end of the event, Bevin said Conway has said he "would've been proud" to vote for the federal health care law had he been in Congress at the time.
"I think that's destroying health care in this country and in this state," Bevin said.
He leveled his sharpest criticisms in closing remarks, foreshadowing his fall attack lines by tying Conway to Obama, who remains an unpopular figure in Kentucky, and accusing Conway of abdicating his duties as attorney general by not appealing a lower court's decision allowing gay marriage in Kentucky.
Bevin said Conway's support of the president should "give pause" to voters.
"I think that frankly should concern a lot of people," Bevin said. "That is a man who as president of this country has done much to destroy who we are as a nation and frankly specifically the fabric of who we are as Kentuckians."
Conway responded in his closing remarks that although Bevin "challenges me on the president, I've challenged the president on EPA regulations time and time again."
"What I've shown is an independence, a willingness to take on my own party and to put Kentucky first," Conway said.
"I'm of this state, from this state and will always stand by our commonwealth."
On gay marriage, Bevin accused Conway of refusing "to do your job when it was your job to defend the Constitution of this state as it relates to marriage."
"That's a big issue to those of us in this state that believe that marriage is between a man a woman and God, and frankly government doesn't have any business in the marriage business," Bevin said.
When asked about those remarks in a news conference after the forum, Conway said Bevin was "completely in error" by charging that Conway hadn't done his job, referring to a state law that says the attorney general has discretion over which lawsuits to pursue.
"So I did my job," Conway said. "Now, if folks don't like how I exercised my discretion, that's one thing. But I did my job."
Conway went on to say he was clear last year that he wouldn't waste state resources to defend a law he thought would be found unconstitutional. He also said he was open to finding an "alternative avenue" for a handful of county clerks who have refused to issue marriage licenses since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last month.
"I understand the religious issues here and I'm not tone deaf to the county clerks," Conway said.
He went on to ding Bevin for his support of Indiana's religious-freedom law, which was rolled back under the threat of boycotts from businesses.
"The jobs of the future are coming to states that don't have policies like that on their books," Conway said.
Conway and Bevin are scheduled to face off twice more next week, at a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday and at the annual Fancy Farm picnic on Aug. 1.