Kentucky Voters Look To Settle Gubernatorial Grudge Match

Nov 5, 2019

Kentucky's political grudge match between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear went to the voters to settle Tuesday, hours after the incumbent governor received a ringing presidential endorsement as he tried to overcome a tenacious challenger bearing a well-known last name.

Credit AP File Photo

The bitterly fought campaign ended with a major election-eve splash — a rally headlined by President Donald Trump at Rupp Arena in Lexington that was meant to give Bevin a last-minute boost in what was seen as a close race.

The result could reverberate far beyond Kentucky. The fierce contest was being watched closely for early signs of how the increasingly partisan impeachment furor in Washington might impact Trump and other Republican incumbents in 2020. Among those with an especially keen interest: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's on the ballot himself next year in Kentucky.

Bevin tried to link himself to Trump's popularity among Kentuckians in ads, tweets and speeches throughout the campaign. It was part of his strategy to nationalize the race and rev up his conservative base. The governor called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ban on "sanctuary cities." He denounced the impeachment probe of Trump. He also stressed his opposition to abortion.

Beshear, the son of Kentucky's last Democratic governor, countered with a disciplined campaign style that stressed what he called "kitchen table" issues — education, jobs and health care. He exploited Bevin's combative style, branding the governor as a bully for a running feud with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp the state's woefully underfunded public pension systems.

Bevin lashed out at teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol. In 2018, Bevin asserted without evidence that an unidentified child who had been left home alone somewhere in the state had been sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as teachers rallied. He apologized but doubled down earlier this year by connecting a girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by teacher protests.

The election will settle a bitter rivalry that stretched from the statehouse to courtrooms and finally to the campaign. Wielding his authority as the state's top lawyer, Beshear filed a series of lawsuits challenging Bevin's executive actions to make wholesale changes to boards and commissions and sought to block Bevin-backed pension and education initiatives. In the highest-profile case, a Beshear lawsuit led Kentucky's Supreme Court to strike down a Bevin-supported pension law on procedural grounds last year.

Bevin ramped up the rivalry by frequently attacking Beshear and his challenger's father in deeply personal terms. Beshear's father, former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, preceded Bevin in office.

Meanwhile, the rivals offered voters stark differences on a host of issues.

Bevin supports charter schools as part of a school-choice agenda. Beshear opposes them, saying they'll divert money from public schools.

Bevin is an outspoken abortion opponent. Beshear supports abortion rights but backs "reasonable restrictions," especially on late-term procedures.

Beshear wants to legalize casino gambling to raise revenue for underfunded public pension systems. Bevin sees expanded gambling as a "sucker's bet."

Bevin wants to require some "able-bodied" Medicaid recipients to get a job, go to school or volunteer to keep their benefits. Beshear vowed to rescind the "waiver," saying it would callously deprive tens of thousands of health coverage. A federal judge blocked the work requirements. Bevin's administration is appealing.

Kentucky's secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, predicted that just 31% of Kentucky's registered voters will go to the polls — at or slightly above turnout in the 2015 governor's election.