Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is playing up his ties with President Donald Trump and their willingness to shake up the political system in his reelection campaign's first TV ad, which launched as the Republican faces mounting criticism from Democrats, teachers' groups and other adversaries.
Bevin's campaign team said Friday the ad will air during the Kentucky Derby broadcast, when a huge statewide audience will be watching.
The ad is narrated by the governor, whose combative style has provoked clashes with education groups and given Democrats plenty of attack lines against him. It highlights Bevin's political kinship with Trump and Kentucky's low unemployment and job growth during his term. Trump won Kentucky by a landslide in 2016 and remains popular there.
"President Trump is taking America to new heights, but it hasn't been easy," Bevin says in the commercial. "People are afraid of change. But I'm not. Neither is the president, and together our changes are working."
The ad shows Bevin, both sporting a beard and clean shaven, alongside Trump.
The two businessmen are similarly unconventional conservative politicians. Both favor social media over traditional media and attack critics fiercely. When a steel producer recently announced plans to build a manufacturing mill in Kentucky, Bevin received a congratulatory phone call from Trump. Bevin put the president on speakerphone so reporters could hear.
A Bevin defeat this year would send shock waves through Republican circles nationally heading into 2020.
Prominent Trump team members have weighed in on Bevin's behalf. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to return to Kentucky on Friday to discuss trade and attend a Kentucky Derby eve party. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently joined Bevin to promote school choice initiatives.
"Bevin needs to nationalize this race and this ad starts that process," GOP strategist Scott Jennings said Friday. "The Democrats are banging on him pretty good in debates and on TV, so I find it smart for him to swing back with his message."
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said the ad reinforces Bevin's reputation as "Donald Trump's Mini-Me."
Bevin's GOP challengers in Kentucky's May 21 primary are state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence.
Goforth began airing the fifth ad of his mostly self-financed campaign this week. It characterizes Bevin as "a political user," saying the governor now is "using President Trump to prop up his campaign."
Goforth campaign manager T.J. Litafik said Friday there are big contrasts between Trump and Bevin "once you scratch the surface."
"A big difference is that Trump has a sense of humor and can roll with the punches while Bevin can't," Litafik said. "Trump has the hide of a rhinoceros while Bevin is the most thin-skinned politician in America."
Bevin's approval ratings have slumped since his failed attempt to change the state's struggling public pension systems.
His comments about teachers and other public workers who opposed his ideas prompted thousands to protest at the state Capitol last year, closing schools in more than 30 districts statewide. Statehouse protests continued this year as teachers rallied against education bills.
Bevin's feud with some education groups intensified recently when he connected a girl's shooting with a school closing caused by teachers who called in sick to rally at the Capitol. In another fight, Attorney General Andy Beshear has tried to block subpoenas issued in the Bevin administration's attempt to investigate the teacher sickouts. Beshear is among four Democrats running for governor.
Advocacy groups for low-income Kentuckians have condemned Bevin's efforts to impose Medicaid work requirements. A federal judge recently blocked the rules, and Bevin's administration is teaming with the Trump White House to challenge the decision.
Bevin's ad also stresses his humble roots growing up in New Hampshire in a family of eight living in a three-bedroom farmhouse with one bath. Bevin says he never had health insurance until joining the Army. The governor has lived in Kentucky for about two decades.
Riddle questioned whether the effort to reconnect with voters will work after so many political fights.
"I think he's trying to recast himself," Riddle said. "The narrative right now is that he's a cold, heartless, arrogant political leader and that's not really the history of our state. We tend to take care of our own and look out for our neighbor."
Jennings acknowledged that Bevin "certainly needs to build himself back up" after Democratic attacks this year and in 2018, when the party's legislative candidates ran against Bevin. Republicans kept their overwhelming legislative majorities in last year's election.