More questions arise about governor’s race as Bevin continues to dig hole and Beshear advances

Published 6:03 am Friday, June 21, 2019

By Al Cross

By Al Cross

Contributing Columnist

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When America’s most unpopular governor limped through last month’s four-way Republican primary with 52 percent of the vote, losing 31 counties to an obscure legislator, some of us still thought – and said publicly – that Matt Bevin was still the favorite in the general election.

We had plenty of reasons: Kentucky’s encouraging economy; Bevin’s incumbency and personal wealth; the strong Republican trend in the state over the last 20 years, perhaps enhanced by renewed debate on abortion; Kentucky’s regard for President Donald Trump, on whom Bevin is counting; and lingering doubts about the ability of the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Andy Beshear, to win a bare-knuckle brawl of a race.

But there were questions and caveats about each of those factors, and now there are more.

Bevin has continued to dig himself a hole, by countenancing and defending an aide’s firing of Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton’s next-to-last remaining staffer, and by failing to work with Republican legislators to get the votes for a stopgap pension bill that must pass by month’s end. The bus is headed for a cliff and both drivers say the other should take the wheel. It’s not a good look for the Grand Old Party, and it undermines one of Bevin’s strongest talking points, his full funding of pensions.

Meanwhile, in horse-racing parlance, Beshear has moved up in class. He won his first primary election, showing strength where he needed to show it (Louisville, Lexington and the west) and started campaigning in the east with the runner-up, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook.

And he seemed to get a mild bump by winning. People like a winner, and winning makes you look stronger and more like a leader, which Beshear needs. Democrats are touting a post-primary poll that showed him over 50 percent, and 15 points ahead of Bevin; Republicans say his lead isn’t that strong, but they concede that it’s probably double digits, and they are worried.

That’s obvious from the TV commercials that the Republican Governors Association has been running since the primary, attacking Beshear and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear – most recently with a spot reminding voters of the bribery conviction of Tim Longmeyer, who was Steve Beshear’s personnel chief and Andy Beshear’s top deputy.

We knew this would be a big Bevin talking point – he recently called both Beshears “crooks” – but the immediate start of the attacks shows that he badly needs to bring Beshear within striking distance, to keep him from gaining momentum and fund-raising traction, and perhaps to reassure Trump that Bevin’s not a loser. We know what Trump thinks of losers.

Speaking of fund-raising, Republicans worry that Bevin isn’t energetic enough about it. He probably has enough money to finance the race himself, but fund-raising is also an organizational and promotional tool. People who give you money and have a private conversation with you as part of that exercise are more likely to talk you up. In elections, it still helps to get the talk right. Bevin’s talk isn’t right, and it hasn’t been since he castigated teachers, who will never forget it

Bevin’s first ad touted the state’s recent economic progress, but his supposed big fish, an aluminum mill in Greenup County, still isn’t a reality. There are questions about its Russian investors, and even if it’s built, it won’t do much for the heart of the East Kentucky Coalfield. Perhaps Bevin is counting on Trump to carry that region for him, but Trump may not be as good at helping governors as he was with rescuing federal candidates like 6th District Rep. Andy Barr last fall.

Bevin’s other major argument is that he has cleaned up the corruption of the Steve Beshear years, and he’s still spending your money investigating that, so some other shoes may drop. But so far, there’s no evidence that either Beshear knew anything about the misdeeds of Longmeyer or others.

All that, and issues like education and health care, may take a back seat to voters’ gut impressions. To many, Bevin remains an arrogant jerk, and Kentuckians don’t like that in a governor, who is the personification of our state to outsiders. We want a leader, not a lecturer. As WHAS Radio talker Dave Jennings said recently, Bevin needs to stop talking to people like he’s their daddy and start talking like he’s their brother.

At his best, Bevin is the better campaigner. He is articulate and persuasive, while Beshear is reedy and rehearsed. But Bevin isn’t pressing that advantage; he passed up a joint appearance Friday with Beshear at a highway contractors’ meeting, amid talk that he’s planning his usual extended summer vacation.

Could Bevin could take or leave being governor? He acts like he wants to be re-elected on his own terms. That rarely works.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.