Gas up the car, Ethel. It’s almost time for our annual trek to western Kentucky for the big picnic at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church, better known as Fancy Farm. The first Saturday in August begins to focus Kentucky voters on their choices in November’s election, especially in a gubernatorial campaign cycle. Here’s a reset on Kentucky’s race for governor as we pack the sunscreen and moist towelettes ahead of the best political barbecue in America:
Republican Matt Bevin vs. Democrat Andy Beshear – Incumbent Bevin finds himself in a tough race for reelection as we enter the homestretch, but GOP strategists feel better about his position today than they did in May, when he scored just 52 percent of the vote in a primary against three virtually unknown candidates.
Each time the Democratic presidential candidates debate, Bevin’s chances for reelection go up. As national Democrats lurch left, Beshear, the challenger, carries a party label that is increasingly unrecognizable for many rural Democrats. As Jonathan Martin reported recently in The New York Times, incumbent Democratic governors around the country “are alarmed that their party’s presidential candidates are embracing policies they see as unrealistic and politically risky.”
“I don’t think that’s good policy or good politics,” said Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, talking about Democratic plans for nationalizing health care and decriminalizing border crossings. Added Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico: “I think it scares people.”
Bevin was smart to latch onto immigration recently, endorsing legislation to ban sanctuary policies as President Donald Trump and national Democrats rage at one another over the crisis at the southern border. In a state Trump won by 30 points, the immigration debate is all upside for Bevin and remains intensely motivating for Republican voters who weren’t exactly enthusiastic about Bevin in the primary.
Bevin is notoriously unpredictable in his public remarks, making it hard to foresee what direction he will take at an event he has never liked or embraced. For Beshear, the son of two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, the mission is clear: present a rationale for his candidacy beyond his last name.
“There’s anti-Bevin energy, but there’s no pro-Beshear energy,” an experienced Democratic strategist told me. He advised Beshear to stay above the fray and “tell voters why he’s running. Delivering attacks is not his thing. He’s yet to even talk about jobs.”
Outside groups are already investing heavily in Kentucky. The Republican Governors’ Association has run nearly $2 million worth of attack ads against Beshear since the primary, eroding the Democrat’s image to some degree. The Democratic Governor’s Association has spent less – just over $500,000 – on a useless television ad that would have worked better if Beshear were running for reelection as attorney general instead of a promotion to governor.
Still to come from the pro-Bevin forces are arguments about abortion. Beshear’s endorsement from the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws ties him directly to his national party’s platform on the issue, which is far more liberal than where most Kentucky voters are. With NARAL pushing to allow abortions up to 40 weeks and Democratic presidential candidates and “The Squad” calling for taxpayer- funded abortions for transgender females and illegal immigrants, Beshear will soon be on defense. At a Catholic picnic, Bevin would be wise to paint Beshear as the next Ralph Northam or Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governors of Virginia and New York, respectively, who pushed extremely liberal abortion policies.
Bevin is in better shape these days, but he’s not out of the woods. While Beshear’s image took a hit under a negative advertising barrage, Bevin’s job approval has not necessarily gone up. But that could change if Bevin takes advantage of his record on the economy. As Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones told the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in a forum we held at the group’s summer meeting, “I’m going to say something most Democrats won’t say, but it’s real. Economically, this state has a pretty good story of the last three years … in general, he’s got a decent economic story to tell.”
With three months to go, I rate this race a toss-up with a slight advantage to Bevin given Kentucky’s political bent and the promise of Trump rallying conservative voters on Bevin’s behalf. Even so, Beshear finds himself up a few points – the same place Democrat Jack Conway was in against Bevin at this point in 2015. Can he hold his lead, or is Beshear too “boring,” as Jones said, to win the race? Stay tuned.