Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: How Matt Bevin (probably) won the GOP nomination for governor

Matt Bevin
saw allegations against James Comer as opening to attack Hal Heiner.
Matt Bevin saw allegations against James Comer as opening to attack Hal Heiner. Herald-Leader

Matt Bevin was running out of time.

Less than a year after he got shellacked in his first political campaign, Bevin had his eye on running for governor, but he was running into a problem — he couldn't find a running mate.

According to Republicans in the know, Bevin reached out to at least five different people — mostly Republican lawmakers — asking them to run for lieutenant governor on his ticket in the last few days and hours before the January filing deadline. He finally settled on Jenean Hampton, a Detroit native who had also lost an election the year before.

The last-minute scrambling, combined with Bevin's 25-point loss to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seven months earlier, left Republicans allied with gubernatorial candidates Hal Heiner and James Comer largely convinced that Bevin would be a blip on their radar screens.

Now, five months after Bevin and Hampton got in the race and barring a big surprise in next week's recanvass of vote totals, they are poised to represent their party in the fall election against Democrat Jack Conway.

Bevin's transformation from scourge of the state Republican Party to standard-bearer was the culmination of a perfect storm, hinging on three main factors.

■ McConnell's team drew up the perfect blueprint for how to beat Bevin, but none of Bevin's new rivals got the memo.

The senator, never one to take anything for granted in a re-election campaign, started defining Bevin even before he got in the race, knocking him off balance and keeping him that way with an endless series of attacks on Bevin's credibility, integrity and ideology.

The more Bevin lost his temper in response, the harder McConnell hit. And by May 20, 2014, Bevin was struggling to cross the finish line and repelling suggestions that he lied about his educational background, and was a bailout beneficiary and a supporter of legalizing cock fighting.

It didn't happen overnight. McConnell's team built a narrative, provided opposition research to back it up and thoroughly defined Bevin by the time voters went to the polls.

But 2015 was a different race, and neither Comer nor Heiner made any effort to take that initial swing at Bevin and knock him off stride, allowing him to introduce himself to voters on his terms.

For all intents and purposes, Comer and Heiner began running against each other when Bevin was still running against McConnell. When Bevin got in the governor's race, Heiner and Comer either didn't notice because they were so focused on each other or didn't take it seriously.

Being ignored or underestimated worked to Bevin's advantage, and he capitalized.

■ Revelations, allegations, controversy and scandal gave Bevin a path to victory.

The latch lifted on his window of opportunity after the Herald-Leader revealed links between the Heiner campaign and a Lexington blogger who for months circulated rumors that Comer had assaulted his college girlfriend. Then the window flung open after the woman made the allegations of abuse in a letter to The Courier-Journal.

Bevin played it perfectly.

He had already been chipping away at Heiner after pro-Heiner super PACs started attacking him, accusing Heiner of having "soiled the bed" with negative attacks.

After the reports about Heiner and Comer came to light, Bevin kept his focus on Heiner. He said Heiner had "disqualified" himself and offered during a debate on Kentucky Sports Radio that Heiner had told him about the allegations "months and months ago."

In that debate, Bevin could've piled on Comer. Instead, he ensured that Heiner was equally damaged.

With the help of Jason Miller, a Ted Cruz spokesman and a partner at Jamestown Associates, Bevin deployed the best ad of the cycle, taking full advantage of the long war between Heiner and Comer.

The ad, "Food fight," perfectly characterized the nastiness of the race in a funny way, and Bevin's promise of "grown-up leadership" at the close of the ad, put him in position to be the beneficiary of some of the worst political fighting I have ever seen.

Just as important, Heiner's last ad, which introduced the allegations against Comer to the larger electorate, resulted in what was known during the Cold War as MAD (mutually assured destruction), and Heiner and Comer were both damaged beyond repair.

■ Plain and simple, Bevin ran the best campaign.

It wasn't just the "Food fight" ad. Bevin and campaign manager Ben Hartman, whose last campaign also lost to an establishment U.S. Senate candidate in a 2014 primary, made all the right moves at all the right times.

As the candidates spent their weekends this spring at Lincoln Day dinners across the state, Bevin began turning heads.

McConnell loyalists, slightly alarmed, reported that they were hearing from supporters in every corner of the state that at every dinner, Bevin was blowing away the field with his remarks.

Bevin didn't make his millions by accident. He is a great salesman, and he sold himself with aplomb at those dinners.

He had, after all, become a student of the dinners, regularly attending them in 2014 long after he had been vanquished by McConnell.

Aided by his personal fortune, Bevin hit the ground running in late January, and he tirelessly campaigned across the state, giving voters his "Blueprint for Kentucky" and asking them, just as he did in 2014, just to "kick the tires" on what he was proposing.

The night before the election, Bevin ran one more ad — a 60-second personal appeal that ran across the state during the first commercial break over every 6 p.m. local news program.

The ads, the timing and the scandals all added up to one thing — an 83-vote margin of victory for the unlikeliest of candidates.

On Friday afternoon, more than a year after his enormous loss to McConnell and months after he began running what was largely dismissed as a joke candidacy born of ego, Bevin sent out another advisory for one last Lincoln Day dinner on May 30.

He will be the keynote speaker on a dais that includes McConnell, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Reps. Andy Barr and Brett Guthrie.

As unlikely as it seemed a few months ago, Bevin will almost certainly be introduced at that dinner as the Republican nominee for governor.