A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Looks like Bevin managed to step on his own tail, but don’t count Mitch out just yet

It was during the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992 and renowned columnist Molly Ivins was talking about Clayton Williams, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Texas who, despite all odds, lost to Democrat Ann Richards as a result of highly erratic behavior and questionable comments, like publicly recounting various adventures in a Mexican cathouse.

Ivins allowed that the Williams candidacy proved that, in Texas politics (and here I paraphrase) “you can step on your own tail but you can’t jump up and down and stomp on it.’’

Molly didn’t say tail but you all, being mature adults out there, get the picture.
Regardless, the point was that a candidate with the majority party behind him or her can generally get away with a lot of nonsense – but only up to a point. Cross the line you wind up paying a high price.

Gov. Matt Bevin, aka St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire, has spent the better part of almost four years jumping up and down and stomping on his “tail.”

Now, it appears, he’s paying the price for being an arrogant, loudmouthed boor who constantly denigrated large portions of the populace he was supposed to represent.
You know, a nitwit.

Tuesday’s poll results show Bevin lost his campaign for re-election to Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Democrat, by about 5,100 votes. The outcome likely will be contested because, as the last four years have established, grace and goodwill are assets outside St. Matt’s reach. (Editor’s note: Bevin has officially requested a recanvass of the votes.) There’s already talk of sending the contest to the Republican-controlled General Assembly through some sordid bit of political finagling but, at this point, at least, it appears the Commonwealth is in line for a new governor.

Kentucky is a socially conservative state and, in recent history, at least, an easy mark for Republicans who fixate on the anti-abortion, pro-gun agenda. The economy, by the Commonwealth’s generally low standards, seemed to be doing okay. Throw anti-immigrant sentiments into the mix and any GOP candidate this year really has to work doggone hard to lose.

Enter St. Matt. Surveys found him to be one of the two most unpopular governors in the nation. Bevin tried to come up with a way throughout his tenure to deprive poor folks – about 400,000 of them – from benefitting from the federal government’s expansion of the Medicaid program. When residents of Louisville’s West End, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, turned to Frankfort for help in containing growing incidents of violence, St. Matt told them to pray, then left them to their own devices.

And how did Bevin do in the West End? In some precincts it appears Bevin registered in the single digits, compared to the three-digit results for Beshear. In all, Beshear left Jefferson County with a nearly 100,000-vote advantage, thanks in large measure to the West End.

St. Matt’s biggest miscalculation, of course, was his decision to not only confront the state’s 40,000 public school teachers concerned that he was intent on ripping off their pensions – a dire situation given that teachers don’t qualify for Social Security – but insult them.

“They’re fighting you, biting you, pulling you under,” he said. “You just need to knock them out and drag them to shore.”

When teachers staged a sick-out to protest the governor’s pension proposal, St. Matt responded with a rant — “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.”

Earlier this year he basically accused teachers of abetting an incident where a child was shot while teachers took a sick-out day to protest his pension package: “One thing you almost didn’t hear anything about while we had people pretending to be sick when they weren’t sick and leaving kids unattended to or in situations that they should not have been in — a little girl was shot, 7 years old, by another kid.”

And there are other things he shouldn’t have said. Northern Kentucky, Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties, have long been a gold mine for the Republican Party. The region has been angling for a bridge over the Ohio River connecting the region to Cincinnati, citing the age and overuse of the Brent Spence Bridge. Bevin proved lukewarm on the proposal, finally maintaining the best way for any such structure to pay for itself is through tolls, which a lot of commuters didn’t really see as a good idea.

Bevin lost Kenton and Campbell counties and did not perform up to snuff in Boone.

He suffered not only in the large cities of Lexington, Louisville, and Covington but in suburban areas where education is considered a key.

He latched on to President Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, like a barnacle to a shop’s hull, coming across as his Mini-Me, with limited impact.

Trump’s appearance in St. Matt’s behalf the day before the election was thought to be the coup de grace. Instead, it might have energized the anti-Bevin/Trump vote, raising the turnout beyond all expectations.

Beshear, whose father, Steve, served as governor directly before Bevin, is not exactly a ball of fire. But he ran a good, steady campaign based on issues, a big improvement over the effort from Democrat Jack Conway, the attorney general before the younger Beshear, who lost to Bevin by nine points in 2015 and barely left an impression.

The new governor will have problems. Both General Assembly chambers hold substantial Republican majorities and there has been some animosity generated between Beshear as attorney general and legislative leaders over actions related to pensions and abortion. Kentucky Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, warned that a Beshear victory would result in “four years of unprecedented deadlock.” Senate leaders have already said the Democrat’s call for legalized gambling in the Commonwealth and a medical marijuana proposal are non-starters.

But Beshear has at least one thing going for him – he’s not Bevin.

It was a good night for Kentucky Democrats but not great. Republicans wound up winning all the down-ballot races, ranging from attorney general to agriculture commissioner, by safe margins. That just shows how justly unpopular our boy Matt was. Beshear, should the lead hold up, will be the only Democrat elected statewide.

And the results offer little insight into the 2020 election despite seers who insist on divining one.

Trump remains popular in Kentucky even though he picked the wrong horse in Bevin and then tried to convince his lemming-like followers that he almost carried old Matt over the goal line. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in 2016 and there’s no reason to believe he will face any struggle in his re-election bid – assuming he isn’t removed from office via impeachment.

One can only hope.

But Kentucky Democrats, a moribund group for almost as long as the Cincinnati Bengals, are suddenly growing confidant that a possibility exists for dumping Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, as he runs for a seventh term next year.

Moscow Mitch, as he is now known, is the most unpopular member of the Senate with voters in his home state, according to a Morning Consult poll. The website RealClearPolitics is reporting that the polling average places McConnell’s approval rating at a squalid 24.3 percent. And legitimate Democratic foes are lining up, currently led by former fighter pilot Amy McGrath.


Yet, despite Bevin’s downfall, smart money remains on ol’ Root-‘n-Branch. Remember, a Public Policy Polling survey released in April 2013 showed that only 36 percent of Kentucky voters approved of his job performance while a majority, 54 percent, disapproved.

Moscow Mitch then proceeded to destroy his GOP primary challenger, some guy named Bevin, and defeat Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state, by better than 14 points.

The 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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