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Bill Straub: Bevin didn’t get a landslide, but don’t count him out; Beshear faces uphill battle

Landslide Matt Bevin, the incumbent, didn’t exactly set the world on fire in Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary, garnering just 52 percent of the vote against three other jamokes who aren’t even substantial enough to be referred to as nobodies.

But don’t kid yourself. When November rolls around, the Commonwealth’s least-liked-in-the-nation governor could very well earn sufficient public support to ensconce himself in Frankfort for four more years, thus resulting in another era of Yosemite Sam-like chaos.

A lot has been made of the fact that Attorney General Andy Beshear, who survived a tough primary against two well-established rivals to grab the Democratic nomination, earned somewhere north of 13,000 votes more than Mad Matt in the primary balloting, providing the perception that the party that once ruled Kentucky for decade after decade is returning to prominence.

That, however, fails to deal with reality.

Matt Bevin

Numbers show a lot of Republicans stayed home, feeling, perhaps, that the governor they are, at best, ambivalent about was certain to roar to victory over the other GOP rivals who might as well have been picked up off the street. That’s not true on the Democratic side where House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, of Sandy Hook, and former state Auditor Adam Edelen, of Lexington, offered strong challenges.

So it’s likely Republicans, as is their wont, are more likely to vote in November than head to the polls in May. Democrats may have already maxed out.

A lot of Bevin’s primary troubles occurred in the Fifth Congressional District, which contains several of the state’s historically most Republican counties. Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt, Bevin’s most prominent challenger, a back-bencher of the third order, hails from that region and drew some whopping majorities – 71.6 percent of the vote in Clay County, 72.7 percent in Jackson County, 61.1 percent in his home county of Laurel.

Some of that can be attributed to home regional pride. And some of it, of course, can be blamed on the fact that a lot of folks view the incumbent as a boob. Either way, a lot of these folks will be headed back to the ballot box Nov. 5 and it would be stunning if they don’t come home and pull the Republican lever, something they’ve done consistently since the Civil War.

Bevin will also gain an edge from the growing strength of the GOP, which resulted in the election of two of the last three governors, a congressional delegation that is all Republican save for Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and majorities in both the state House and Senate.

This is not your old man’s Yellow Dog Democrat Kentucky anymore.

So, while the picture is not optimum for St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire it likewise isn’t as bleak as some might think. He’ll probably have more money to spend than Beshear, benefit from incumbency and his new BFF, President Trump (Ouch!), who, for some unfathomable reason, retains a high level of support in the Bluegrass despite driving the Commonwealth into the ditch (empty promises about coal, high tariffs on bourbon to name just two) will appear frequently enough to further bolster his chances.

While all this is true, it behooves Mad Matt to find some way to quit digging his own grave if he really wants a second term. Democrats retain a voter registration majority in Kentucky, although party members are not shy about frequently sliding over to the Republican side when it meets their purposes. A lot of those folks don’t like what they’ve seen coming out of the first floor of the Capitol Building since December 2015 and they may give Beshear a serious look. The same goes for independents, who Bevin most likely will need for a second go-round.

There’s little debate that Bevin has proved to be his own worst enemy. Given the state of the economy – outstanding by the Commonwealth’s albeit low standards – he should be riding high. But his unconscionable decision to punch down on the state’s teachers, most of whom remain popular within their communities, his failure to come up with an acceptable plan to deal with the ongoing state pension crisis, his running battle with the Republican-controlled legislature and some of his entertaining but inane ideas – remember pray away the guns in West Louisville? – have shown him to be something of a dope – an arrogant one at that.

Andy Beshear

Given all that you might think it’s time for Beshear to start touching up his inaugural address. But he’ll have to deal with a Kentucky electorate that is very socially conservative. While most voters in the 50 states place a premium on the condition of the economy, it seems more often than not that Commonwealth voters are interested in social issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, bible in schools, crime in the streets and the like.

Bevin will go gangbusters on the social issues side. Five will get you 10 he plays the abortion card quicker than you can say Jack Robinson. The Susan B. Anthony List, a dedicated anti-abortion organization, has already released a statement entitled, “KY Primaries: Abortion Extremist Andy Beshear Will Face Pro-Life Champion Gov. Matt Bevin.”

The abortion issue has assumed renewed relevance since Trump has appointed two perceived anti-choice justices — Bret Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – to the U.S. Supreme Court, filling the so-called pro-life armies with confidence that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. Eight states – including Kentucky – have passed new laws offering various degrees of draconian anti-abortion restrictions.

The 2019 Kentucky General Assembly offered up what is known as a heartbeat bill that effectively prohibits abortions after six to eight weeks of pregnancy when doctors can usually start detecting a fetal heartbeat.

That law has been put on hold by the federal court. But you can make book that Bevin is going to play the heck out of it and promise to take the issue all the way to the Supremes. You can bet strong anti-choice folks are going to remember him at the November polls. It’s an issue, in this state, that Beshear is going to have to deal with.

If all goes according to Hoyle, Beshear will dominate in the urban centers of Louisville and Lexington and, perhaps, pick up some support in GOP leaning Western Kentucky, his family’s home base – his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, hails from Dawson Springs. Bevin will lose a county here or there but the rest is there for the taking – if he can somehow convince the elect rate that he is not the moron that he often seems.

A high hurdle indeed.

NKyTribune’s Washington columnist 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. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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