Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has lashed out at protesting teachers and ridiculed judges during his tenure, as he steers Kentucky on a conservative course while struggling to fix pension problems. Now the pugnacious governor faces the first test of his reelection campaign in a race that could offer clues about the mood of the electorate heading into a presidential election year.
Democratic voters will have their say Tuesday, when they go to the polls to pick Bevin’s opponent. Three prominent Democrats, including the son of Bevin’s predecessor, are competing for the chance to challenge Bevin, who shares a style similar to President Trump’s. Both Bevin and Mr. Trump are proudly unconventional conservatives who favor social media and attack critics fiercely.
In a state recently dominated by the GOP, Democrats see an opportunity to win back the governorship, largely because of Bevin’s self-inflicted political damage, including a caustic feud with public school teachers.
Bevin plays up his ties to Mr. Trump, who won Kentucky by 30 points in 2016 and remains a political force in the bluegrass state.
“You could like me or dislike me,” Bevin said recently. “You could like or dislike this president. But I’m telling you, you want the governor of your state to have a good, personal friendship with the president of the United States. It doesn’t hurt your state.”
The fight for Kentucky’s top political job could be an early test of where both political parties stand with voters heading into the 2020 presidential election contests — something Bevin hopes works to his benefit.
“You hear a lot about what’s coming in 2020 and it’s true,” he told the National Rifle Association recently. “But I’m the proxy for what’s going to happen in 2020 as they (Democrats) experiment in Kentucky in 2019. So if you happen to want to get engaged in the political process, to stand in the gap in this year in advance of the big year next year, I know a guy. I know a guy in Kentucky who would be grateful for your help.”
But the primary could signal whether Bevin has fence-mending to do within his own party. He ran a low-key primary campaign touting low unemployment and job growth, but he was the prime target for Democrats seeking his job.
His most bitter political nemesis, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, was seen as the Democratic front-runner since the campaign started. Beshear’s father is a popular former two-term governor.
Beshear has faced tough challenges from ex-state auditor Adam Edelen and longtime state Rep. Rocky Adkins in the Democratic primary. He played up his many courtroom fights with Bevin’s administration over education and pension issues. He filed the lawsuit that led the Kentucky Supreme Court to strike down a Bevin-backed pension law on procedural grounds last year. The pension issue remains unresolved despite a Republican-dominated legislature.
Adkins, a longtime Democratic leader in the state House, said his rural, moderate credentials put him in the best position to win back Democrats who switched to the GOP. Edelen embraced a progressive agenda and vowed to transform Kentucky’s economy. He cited his role in developing a massive solar power project on a former Appalachian coal mine.
Bevin, who ran as an insurgent outsider before winning the state’s chief executive office, now faces an insurgent challenger of his own. State Rep. Robert Goforth is the best known of three Bevin challengers in Tuesday’s primary.
Goforth shares Bevin’s socially conservative beliefs, but the challenger tried to capitalize on the governor’s public spats with teachers.
Bevin has sharply criticized teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky’s Capitol, forcing some school districts to close.
In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down last month, connecting a young girl’s shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by more teacher protests.
Kentucky teachers rallied last year to oppose pension changes and to demand more funding for schools. Protests continued this year against some education measures. The demonstrations were part of a nationwide wave of teacher activism.
Bevin has happily signed conservative bills sent to him by the state’s GOP-dominated legislature. They included a charter schools bill, a right-to-work measure letting workers evade union fees, a bill to let people carry a concealed handgun without a permit or training and a series of restrictions on abortion. Several of the abortion measures are bottled up in court fights.
Bevin has aggressively tried to impose new rules for Kentucky’s Medicaid program to require “able-bodied” adult recipients to get a job, go to school or volunteer. A federal judge blocked the rules and Bevin’s administration appealed. The governor defiantly said he wouldn’t let a “rogue” judge dictate Kentucky’s workforce development agenda.
In another court-related tiff, Bevin went on talk radio and called a state judge an “incompetent hack.”
But Bevin’s biggest fight has been to shore up Kentucky’s massively underfunded public pension systems. He called lawmakers back into a special session last year after his loss at the state Supreme Court, but lawmakers left without passing a replacement pension measure.
Bevin wants to call a special legislative session soon to take up another pension-relief bill. Legislative leaders told him to make sure he has the votes to pass it. Bevin has yet to set a date as primary voters go to the polls.