Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Can Republicans save Matt Bevin from himself?

Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, left, listened  to a reply from his opponent, Jack Conway during a debate at Centre College on Oct. 6.
Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, left, listened to a reply from his opponent, Jack Conway during a debate at Centre College on Oct. 6. AP

Until Monday, it certainly looked like Jack Conway was heading toward victory in Kentucky's race for governor.

And he still might be, but at least now we've got a ball game.

Over the last two weeks, there was a definite sense — and some bipartisan agreement — that if there was even a whiff of momentum in this ugly, stagnant race for governor, it was squarely on Conway's side.

The Democratic attorney general was enjoying an overwhelming financial advantage, and casual voters who were tuning in at the last minute were seeing a one-sided conversation that depicted Republican Matt Bevin in a most unflattering light.

The Republican Governors Association's decision to pull out of the race in late September, which came about the same time Bevin had Republican heads shaking because of his strange visit to the Kentucky Democratic Party's headquarters, meant that Bevin was on his own and undecided voters were only going to hear what Conway wanted them to hear in the race's closing days.

But now, as the Herald-Leader first reported Monday evening, the RGA is back in Kentucky, spending $1.6 million on advertising to help Bevin down the homestretch.

The question is: How much will it matter?

In one respect, it means everything.

Bevin has a better chance of winning now than he did 48 hours ago because a one-sided television fight during the last two weeks of the campaign would likely have meant that undecided voters would break heavily for Conway.

While Democrats are still expected to enjoy a sizable financial advantage, Bevin now has help reaching the remaining undecided voters.

But in that respect, it might not mean that much at all.

While polling has consistently shown that large numbers of undecided voters remain up for grabs, it's questionable just how receptive they are to any new information.

Voters have been inundated with information about the two candidates, and there's little evidence that voters like either one of them very much.

People who think Conway would be a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama already hold that opinion. And folks who think Bevin is a "pathological liar" and an "East Coast con man" already believe that, too.

And really, it's not hard to imagine that a lot of those undecided voters would rather stay home than pull the lever for either man.

If there is a benefit to the RGA's return, aside from a more level advertising playing field, it's that Bevin won't spend the remainder of the campaign alone, appearing like an angry loner abandoned by his own party.

While Bevin's campaign has slalomed back and forth on issues ranging from health care to early childhood education, he has consistently shown during in his two years in the political arena that he is not a team player.

From his refusal to endorse U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after last year's primary to his decision to embarrass U.S. Sen. Rand Paul by voicing his support for Ben Carson just a few weeks ago, Bevin has a confounding habit of sticking his finger in the eyes of those who are trying to help him.

Combine that with his boasting of having voted against President George W. Bush, and it becomes clear — through actions; not words — that Bevin is a Republican who often holds his own party in contempt.

It happened again last week when Bevin told Politico that "you will always find people, I'm sure, at any party at any time who have their knickers in a twist on some front."

"But with respect to the people who are adults ... all of them are on board," Bevin said. "The whiners are people who will sit at the children's table and continue to whine."

Maybe Bevin just doesn't realize that in a race this close, he needs the whiners, as he put it, to show up and vote for him.

Despite Bevin's actions, the Republican Party is doing everything it can down the stretch to try and help him win.

And he desperately needs the help.

Bevin's campaign has been at war with itself on messaging, flip-flopping on major issues to a dizzying degree.

The latest example came Monday night during KET's lieutenant governor debate when Jenean Hampton, Bevin's running mate, said early childhood education was a "non-issue" that "wasn't even on our radar."

"I think many parents do fine teaching their kids the basics and sending them off to school, and we've lost sight of that over the years," Hampton said. "Somehow the parents are no longer responsible for their children."

Contrast that with what Bevin said about the issue in July, when he was criticizing The Courier-Journal for reporting that Bevin said during KET's Republican primary debate that after third grade, early childhood education "serves no purpose."

"To paint the picture intentionally that I don't believe in, that I'm not a supporter of, that I'm not an advocate of early childhood education is a mistruth," Bevin said. "It's an absolute and outright lie and to continue to perpetuate it is irresponsible."

So maybe the RGA can save Bevin and Hampton from themselves.

That the group has retuned to Kentucky is exactly what it looks like: A life preserver thrown to a weak swimmer who keeps trying to tip over the rescue boat.

Kentuckians will find out in two short weeks if it was enough to keep Bevin from drowning.

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