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Bill Straub: As incomprehensible as it sounds, Bevin has a halfway decent shot at winning

It was the venerated Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat who served as speaker of the House for 17 years in the mid-1900s, who expressed unease over many of the men advising President John F. Kennedy, asserting that “I’d feel a whole lot better if one of them had ever run for sheriff.’’

Kentucky, with a rich if erratic political history, hasn’t always shared Mr. Sam’s preference for electoral experience. Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. was more interested in profits than politics before organizing his successful 1979 campaign. The same can be said for Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, a college bookstore magnate who showed a willingness to spend a portion of his personal fortune to lead the commonwealth in 1987.

Neither Brown nor Wilkinson had run for so much as dog catcher before setting their sights on Frankfort, promising to use their business acumen to introduce efficiencies into state operations. Both experienced some success during their four-year terms, tempered by setbacks that had a lot to do with them being at sea over the manner in which government is supposed to run.

Matt Bevin

Matt Bevin

What both men had were good advisers. Wilkinson in particular made a wise decision when he picked a wet-behind-the-ears consultant whose scorecard exhibited a single victory, that for Democrat Bob Casey up in Pennsylvania. James Carville proved to be an ingenious choice and he later went on, of course, to successfully guide Bill Clinton’s campaign for president in 1992.

All of which brings us to Louisville entrepreneur and man-who-would-be-governor Matt Bevin, a Republican who has only a smidgen more experience than either Brown or Wilkinson in running for office, and that was probably more of a negative than a positive experience, being that the man he opposed in the 2014 GOP Senate primary, who promptly crushed him under his heel, was Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville.

Bevin, in other words, is a dilettante who has neither the advisers nor the grounding that Brown and Wilkinson brought to their respective campaigns. The fact that Bevin failed to publicly endorse McConnell, the most powerful man in Kentucky politics, in the general election conclusively established that his grasp on political realities is rather tenuous.

Still, despite his initial electoral embarrassment, Bevin opted to enter this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary carrying a well-earned underdog tag. He prevailed when the race degenerated into a cat fight between the two favorites, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville City Councilman Hal Heiner, in a scenario reminiscent of the 1987 Democratic primary when Brown and then lieutenant governor, now governor, Steve Beshear bared their fangs, thus opening the door for Wilkinson.

Bevin won by 83 votes, four fewer than “Landslide Lyndon’’ Johnson when the future president won a Texas Senate primary by 87 votes in 1948.

An unholy mess

Since his primary victory, Bevin has made what can only be described as an unholy mess of his campaign. He has flip-flopped more often than a smallmouth bass on the bottom of a Crestliner. Even scholars in ancient languages have failed to decipher where in the hell he comes down on the Medicaid expansion adopted by Beshear.

For some unfathomable reason he lurched into Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters a few weeks ago to complain about a sign facing eastbound I-64 near Frankfort that said, “You still can’t trust Matt Bevin.” He has refused to release his tax returns, usually a formality, without a reasonable explanation and picked unnecessary fights with members of the state media. He wants to administer drug tests to poor Medicaid recipients.

But the piece de resistance came last week when he appeared at a debate hosted by Kentucky Sports Radio and revealed that his first choice for president had been Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out due to lack of support, and that his new choice was Dr. Ben Carson, a retired pediatric surgeon whose qualifications for the nation’s highest office rival Bill the Cat’s.

Now, a qualified voter in this great nation of ours is certainly free to support the candidate of his or her choosing, it’s one of the things that makes America great. The problem here is that one of the seemingly thousands of candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination this go-round is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky – emphasis on the Kentucky – who is making a legitimate yet undistinguished bid for said nomination.

What’s more, Paul was slated to campaign in Bevin’s behalf a few short days later.

Regardless, asked directly, Bevin made it clear that Paul “would not be the first choice that I would make.”


Of course Bevin proceeded to back and fill soon thereafter but, folks, that genie is out of the bottle. Bevin can hem-and-haw to his heart’s content, but the facts say he opposed McConnell in the Senate primary and then refused time and again to publicly back him. Then he threw cold water on the presidential aspirations of Kentucky’s other U.S. senator, Rand Paul.

It’s almost as if Bevin is trying to lose, like he’s staging some great Andy Kaufman-like performance art. Pretty soon he’ll be wrestling women in a mud pit.

Halfway decent shot

Jack Conway

Jack Conway

Still, after all that, and there’s just no telling what other glorious events await the future, observers still give the Louisville businessman a halfway decent shot at the title, as incomprehensible as that may sound.

There are several factors playing here. Bevin’s Democratic foe, Attorney General Jack Conway, isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard. He’s no Happy Chandler or Wendell Ford when it comes to the few times he’s actually been spotted shaking hands, campaigning and asking folks for their votes. He’s been the Lamont Cranston candidate, only mouthing platitudes and making sure he doesn’t adopt any position that might cause controversy.

Woe be to a once powerful Kentucky Democratic Party that relies on such colorless, timid standard bearers.

Regardless, even the most vanilla of candidates should beat one of the rotten egg variety. In Kentucky, however, the seismic shift toward the Republican Party sometime in the late 20th century has created more than a bit of turmoil. Once solidly “Yellow Dog Democrat’’ regions like the first and second congressional districts have seemingly transformed overnight, based primarily on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and religion in the public square. Those voters feel a greater affinity toward someone like Bevin despite his occasional dance with the lunatic fringe.

Popular in Northern Kentucky

For reasons inexplicable, Bevin appears particularly popular in Northern Kentucky, a region that has moved from Chamber of Commerce Republicanism over the past few years to, well, let’s just call it the outer limits, as exemplified by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Lewis County, who has never seen a federal government he didn’t want to shut down for the slightest provocation.

Voters in Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties hit the GOP primary in record numbers last May, going for Bevin in a big way. He won all three of the heavily Republican northern counties with more than 50 percent of the vote and he’s likely to sweep the region yet again.

And then, of course, there is President Barak Obama, the most unpopular man, politician or not, in Kentucky.

One might think that a president who helped improve the commonwealth’s economy, cutting the unemployment rate to about 5 percent, providing healthcare to about 400,000 residents who previously had gone without and killing Osama bin Laden – remember that? – might reap some benefits.

One would be wrong. A PPP poll, which generally leans Democratic, taken in June placed Obama’s approval rating in the state at a paltry 33 percent, while 60 percent disapprove. Kentuckians generally have little use for (cough, cough, clear throat) “urban’’ politicians and that is very likely to bleed over into the gubernatorial campaign.

More on that some other time.

Recent surveys show Conway, aka Mr. Personality, with a five-point edge, but Republican turn-out could very well mix things up. That Bevin is within striking distance says a lot about the commonwealth’s future, and what it says ain’t all that good.

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straub head

Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

To read more from Bill Straub, click here.

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