LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin cleared his first hurdle toward a second term despite a strong Republican primary challenge Tuesday, setting up a showdown with his arch-nemesis — Democrat Andy Beshear — that will settle the feud they've fought in courtrooms over education and pension policies.
While Bevin claimed the nomination in GOP-leaning Kentucky, an upstart challenger — state Rep. Robert Goforth — attracted a sizeable share of the vote in a sign the incumbent has fence mending to do with his political base. Bevin got a last-minute boost from President Donald Trump.
Beshear, the state's attorney general, defeated two prominent rivals — Rocky Adkins and Adam Edelen — in the Democratic primary. He'll try to restore the governorship for Democrats and carry on a family tradition. His father, Steve, was a popular governor whose two terms preceded Bevin's tenure.
Now he's on to the main event to be settled in November — Bevin vs. Beshear.
Wielding his authority as the state's top lawyer, Beshear emerged as a lone Democratic obstacle to Republican dominance of state government. He challenged the governor's executive actions and sued to block Bevin-backed pension and education initiatives in a series of high-profile lawsuits.
Bevin has the advantage of heading the Republican ticket in a state that has trended overwhelmingly toward the GOP in recent elections. In his low-profile primary campaign, Bevin touted job growth, low unemployment and his alliance with Trump.
Trump waded into the GOP primary by tweeting his support for Bevin and recording a phone message urging Republican voters to back the governor. Bevin shares a style similar to Trump's. The Republican businessmen are proudly unconventional conservatives who favor social media and attack critics fiercely.
But his most prominent Republican challenger garnered a significant vote against the incumbent governor. Goforth put at least $750,000 of his own money into his insurgent campaign, which attacked Bevin for his combative style and his struggles on the pension issue.
Bevin claimed the GOP nomination despite a series of self-inflicted political wounds from his feud with groups representing school teachers. Bevin's approval ratings slumped after his failed attempt to change the state's struggling public pension systems.
In a pre-emptive shot, the Democratic Governors Association said even Bevin's allies at the White House are worried about his reelection.
"They have every right to be worried — the bluegrass state is ready to turn the page from the failed Bevin era," the group said in a statement.
The contest for Kentucky's top political job looms as a potential early test of both political parties' standing with voters heading into the 2020 presidential election. Bevin is expected to nationalize the general election race by touting his alliance with Trump and trying to link his Democratic challenger to prominent national liberal politicians. It's a formula that's been effective for the GOP in becoming the state's dominant party.
Voter Tom Priddy cast his vote in Lawrenceburg for Bevin, saying he appreciates that the governor is a strong Trump ally.
"I don't necessarily like everything about Trump, but Trump's doing the job," Priddy said. "He's doing everything that he said he was going to do."
But a Democratic voter in Lawrenceburg, retired teacher Roger Whitehouse, said Bevin is vulnerable because of his caustic feud with teachers.
"I think the teachers — the KEA (Kentucky Education Association) and retired teachers — will beat Bevin," he said
During the primary campaign, Bevin was a prime target for the Democrats. Goforth also ran an aggressive campaign, trying to capitalize on the governor's public spats with teachers.
Bevin has sharply criticized teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol, forcing some school districts to close.
In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down last month, connecting a young girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by more teacher protests.
Kentucky teachers rallied last year to oppose pension changes and to demand more funding for schools. Protests continued this year against some education measures. The demonstrations were part of a nationwide wave of teacher activism.
Bevin has steered Kentucky on a conservative course along with the state's GOP-dominated legislature. He supports school choice efforts and signed measures to restrict abortion, allow people to carry a concealed handgun without a permit or training and a right-to-work measure letting workers evade union fees. Several of the abortion measures are being challenged in court.
He's also tried to revamp the state's Medicaid program to require "able-bodied" adults to get a job, go to school or volunteer as a condition to continue receiving the benefits. A federal judge blocked the rules and Bevin's administration appealed.