DYCHE | The Bevin era begins
By John David Dyche
Less than a third of Kentucky’s registered voters have spoken. Matt Bevin has been elected Kentucky’s next governor in a near landslide.
This prospect was inconceivable a year-and-a-half ago. Then, Mitch McConnell made Bevin seem dishonest and ridiculous while annihilating him in their U.S. Senate primary.
Give Bevin credit for resilience. And good luck.
He earned name recognition, albeit the hard way, in that loss. He seized an opportunity when two respected “regular Republican” gubernatorial aspirants, Hal Heiner and James Comer, opted to compete, bitterly, instead of cooperate.
Bevin smartly took advantage when that rivalry indirectly produced news stories about accusations of abuse against Comer from a former girlfriend. Bevin can be called “Gerth’s Governor” because Courier-Journal reporter Joe Gerth’s controversial articles about those allegations surely provided the mere 83-vote margin in that tiny turnout primary.
Immediately after that squeaker Bevin got more help from another unlikely source. Mitch McConnell, ever the Republican leader, took the high road and endorsed Bevin even though Bevin had not endorsed him after their race.
McConnell helped Bevin’s campaign in many ways. The consummate political pro did so despite amateurish mistakes by Bevin, such as when his running mate, Jenean Hampton, insultingly declined to comment on whether McConnell should resign as Senate majority leader.
Bevin got another blessing when Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis refused on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. When she went to jail for disobeying a federal court order Bevin rushed to the scene, described it as a dangerous assault on religious freedom, and capitalized on the resulting publicity.
The Republican Governors Association was another big Bevin benefactor. The well-heeled group left Kentucky briefly as Bevin raised virtually nothing in old-fashioned campaign contributions, but returned to the fray with force and a seemingly infinite number of negative ads when he put more of his personal millions into the race.
Of course, Bevin was also on the receiving end of incessant negative advertising by Democrat Jack Conway and groups backing him. To Bevin’s credit, his own campaign’s ads did not descend into the gutter, even as he regularly called Conway a liar on the trail.
Bevin was the clear winner in debates against Conway, who will long be remembered for heavy sweating, nervous laughter, and bad jokes. Not only did Bevin, an undeniably good talker, beat Conway, but he bested much of the state’s media, too.
Remarkably, no newspaper, not even among the state’s few conservative stalwarts, endorsed Bevin. News coverage called out Bevin for serial contradictions, temper tantrums, withholding his tax returns, and other things, while columnists, including this one, piled on.
In the end, media hostility may have actually helped Bevin by complementing his anti-establishment, outsider meme. This part of the campaign’s late stages played out against the reinforcing backdrop of the ridiculously biased questioning of Republican presidential candidates in the CNBC debate.
As this column observed in August, Bevin is Kentucky’s version of Donald Trump. Both men do things their own way, which is a dramatic departure from the discredited political norm, and voters are obviously responding to them with a spirited, “Vive la difference!”
The Bluegrass Poll sponsored by the Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-27, and WHAS-11 badly missed its second consecutive election, both times by overstating support for the Democrat, and is surely done for as a factor in Kentucky politics. Critics of the poll like WDRB’s Bill Lamb stand thoroughly vindicated.
Democrats are demoralized and desperate. Their titular leader, state Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, gave an embarrassing Election Night speech that put the parties’ political bankruptcy on full display for the state to see.
Thanks to the policies of liberal Democratic President Barack Obama, the mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky have now apparently joined that party’s former Gibraltar of Western Kentucky in the solidly Republican column. Democrats are in danger of becoming political curiosities in Kentucky.
The party of Obama is out of ideas and candidates. Despite having done a great job in office, their best hope for the future, Adam Edelen, lost his re-election bid for auditor to a Republican who seems to talk as much or more about God as he does about issues.
Edelen’s loss was absolutely devastating to Democrats. They are now left without a credible candidate against Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul next year even as Paul’s quixotic presidential campaign (not even Bevin backs him) was rendering him potentially vulnerable to a conservative, strong on national security Democrat.
Republicans must be delighted to hear Democrats bandy about the name of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer as their potential 2016 Democratic Senate nominee. When it comes to charisma, Fischer makes the dull Conway look like Justin Timberlake.
Unless that election is to be fought over the issue of bike lanes it is hard to see how Fischer could win, and Democrats are dreaming if they think the presence of Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket will change the dynamic. Yes, Bill Clinton carried Kentucky twice, but Hillary is not Bill and this is not the Kentucky of the 1990s.
But, unlikely as it is to happen, Bevin must be careful. Endangered Democrats may be the most dangerous kind, and Kentucky’s see their last redoubt of political power, the state House of Representatives, under siege next year.
McConnell is helping raise money and recruit candidates to check that final item off of his otherwise fulfilled political bucket list. Now that the GOP has the governorship, too, that recruitment will be easier and Frankfort Democrats who see the handwriting on the wall may be deciding not whether to switch parties, but when.
Some of the same Democrats, like Stumbo, who helped bring down Kentucky’s last Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, are still there. They will try to bait Bevin into blow-ups and self-inflicted wounds so they can have something – anything – to run against next year.
Dynastic Democrats did win the race for attorney general, the office from which Stumbo terrorized Fletcher. Newcomer Andy Beshear, son of current Democratic governor Steve Beshear, will surely be training his sights on the new administration, not the old one.
One would never know it from Tuesday’s low voter turnout, but Kentucky confronts very serious challenges and needs wise political leadership. Let us all sincerely wish Matt Bevin the best and try to support him as he undertakes to provide it.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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