FRANKFORT — In a state where the president’s popularity surpasses his own, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin launched into an impassioned defense of Donald Trump while standing near a placard displaying one word: Impeachment.
The press conference prop spoke volumes about the acerbic Republican governor’s strategy of turning hot-button national issues into bluegrass state reelection themes.
By contrast, Bevin’s challenger, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, has stuck to a state-based script, touting teacher raises and legalized casino gambling.
The bitter rivals are locked in a close race in a state that has turned solidly Republican in recent years. The fierce contest is being watched closely for early signs of how the increasingly partisan impeachment furor in Washington might impact Trump and other Republican incumbents in 2020. Among those with an especially keen interest: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s on the ballot himself next year in Kentucky.
The more freewheeling of the two gubernatorial candidates, Bevin plays up low unemployment, his opposition to abortion and a willingness to tackle underfunded public pension systems. Often, though, his eyes are trained on Washington matters, from illegal immigration to impeachment, that may have minimal impact on Kentucky other than to rev up his conservative base.
Bevin’s emphasis on national issues is good politics, said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, especially with House Democrats ramping up their impeachment inquiry.
“This will help Bevin if he can continue to make this an ‘us versus them’ when it comes to the national Democratic Party and its policies, which just aren’t en vogue in Kentucky,” Jennings said.
Trump easily carried Kentucky in the 2016 presidential race and remains a commanding figure there. Republicans have long worked to nationalize campaigns, a strategy that helped them gain dominance in Kentucky as they linked local Democrats to unpopular national leaders.
Bevin is using that same strategy in hopes of overcoming voter misgivings about his attempts to revamp public pension systems and contentious relations with the teachers who opposed him.
The bitter Bevin-Beshear rivalry will be settled Nov. 5. Trump allies regularly traipse into Kentucky to campaign for Bevin and stress the broader stakes for the president.
“If the people of Kentucky do not reelect this fine governor, every single liberal media person is going to say, ‘Oh, this is a watershed moment for the country. One of the president’s favorite governors did not get reelected,’” conservative U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina said at a recent Bevin campaign event, where he was joined by former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Bevin says his connections to the president benefit Kentucky. Trump headlined a Louisville fundraiser for Bevin this summer, and Trump is scheduled to appear at an election-eve rally at Rupp Arena in Lexington on Nov. 4. It will be the closing pitch that Bevin has been hoping for in his bid for a second term.
Bevin emerged from the May GOP primary needing to shore up his base after barely surpassing 50% of the vote. An opponent, Republican state Rep. Robert Goforth, was backed by nearly 40% of primary voters.
T.J. Litafik, a Republican political consultant who managed Goforth’s campaign, said recently that if Kentuckians base their votes on state issues, Beshear wins. If national issues prevail, he said, Bevin will.
“The national political environment is giving Bevin cover with the electorate that he has not earned based upon his performance as governor,” Litafik said. “It’s going to come down to whether people vote for an unpopular governor because they don’t care for his opponent’s political party.”
Beshear’s campaign has worked to make inroads with Trump’s base. A recent TV ad featured two Trump supporters who back Beshear.
“I’m still a Donald Trump guy, but I’m done with Bevin,” Dennis Boehm says in the ad. “Beshear is a good person. He gets things done.”
Bevin has tried to lock down conservatives by raising issues that resonate with many Trump supporters. Bevin’s campaign ran a TV ad calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ban on “sanctuary cities.”
In doing so, the governor embraced a stance that Trump rode to the presidency. When pressed, however, Bevin conceded that illegal immigration isn’t “a huge issue for us as a state, but it’s a concern for this country.” He told reporters he brought it up because “it matters to people who live here.”
Beshear’s campaign rebuffed Bevin’s claims that the challenger is soft on illegal immigration. As attorney general, Beshear “made sure that Kentucky did not have any sanctuary cities so that Kentucky would receive its share of federal funds for law enforcement,” Beshear campaign spokesman Sam Newton said.
As Bevin has railed against impeachment, he’s revealed little about what his second term would look like. He vows to keep pushing to shore up Kentucky’s pension systems. And he’s promised to push to exempt military veterans’ retirement from state taxation as part of a state tax code overhaul. But he’s often focused more on things he’s against, like casino gambling.
At his recent press conference outside the Governor’s Mansion, Bevin condemned the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as an “absolute travesty” that is “destroying this nation.” Bevin vigorously defended Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president at the heart of the probe.
Beshear has sidestepped the issue, saying that as Kentucky’s top prosecutor he relies on “facts and evidence.” If Congress moves forward, he said, the proceedings should focus on “getting to the truth and evidence and not scoring political points.”
“Kentucky voters are smart enough to know that a governor has nothing to do with whether an impeachment proceeding moves forward or not,” he said.
Whether or not they are smart enough, Bevin is betting that they care.