FANCY FARM, Ky. — President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is still a year away, but Kentucky is going to get a preview this fall.
Gov. Matt Bevin is clinging as tightly as he can to Trump — even borrowing some of his tactics — as he attempts to overcome rock-bottom approval ratings in a bid for a second term. The unpopular governor is counting on Trump’s appeal in the Bluegrass State — the president won Kentucky by 30 percentage points in 2016 — and conservative cultural positions to knock off his chief political rival, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of Bevin’s predecessor.
Like Trump, Bevin is a first-term Republican incumbent whose abrasive political style has chafed large swaths of voters. Last year, he apologized after suggesting children in Kentucky were being sexually assaulted at home because of teachers’ protests that had shut down a number of public schools. Then, this spring, Bevin appeared to blame a teacher sickout for the accidental shooting of 7-year-old girl in Louisville.
Bevin’s penchant for controversy — a list of provocative comments includes statements about his own children and chicken pox and closing schools because of extreme cold — has rendered him vulnerable in this conservative-oriented state. Public polling is limited, but Bevin scored a worst-in-the-nation 32 percent job-approval rating in Morning Consult’s quarterly tracking of governors’ popularity.
“Republicans are trying to make it all about Trump because they don’t want it to be about Bevin,” said Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky journalist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
The race unofficially kicked off Saturday in this small Western Kentucky town where both Bevin and Beshear spoke at St. Jerome Catholic Church’s annual picnic, known in state and national political circles as Fancy Farm.
At the raucous and sweaty event, Bevin began his speech by attacking Beshear on abortion, brandishing a blown-up copy of an invitation to a Beshear fundraiser earlier this week in Louisville. “It was hosted by the guy who owns the only abortion clinic left in Kentucky,” he said, later calling the campaign cash collected at the event “blood money.”
“Which side are you on?” Bevin repeatedly asked attendees, with one half of the crowd booing and the other cheering. “Do you stand with Donald Trump as the president of America? Or do you stand with ‘the Squad,’ or whatever they call themselves these days?”
After Bevin concluded his speech — leading the crowd in the pledge of allegiance — Beshear responded in kind. He called Bevin a “reckless and erratic” governor who insults citizens who disagree with him.
“What you heard from our governor today, and what you see every day of his administration, is to try to create an ‘us’ versus a ‘them.’ Under a Beshear-Coleman administration, there will only be an ‘us,’” Beshear said, invoking the name of his running mate, teacher Jacqueline Coleman.
The speeches — which typically feature a few zingers, though not this much vitriol — encapsulated what has already become an ugly race. In the days leading up to the picnic, Beshear called Bevin “unhinged” for his attacks on abortion rights. And responding to Beshear’s call that he fire the state’s labor secretary, Bevin, interviewed outside an event Friday night in Murray, called Beshear “a buffoon.”
The governor’s pitch includes a defense of his economic record, citing growth in Kentucky business, low unemployment and record-high workforce participation. But it also includes the same red meat served to voters on the right across the nation on abortion and immigration.
Democrats are “complaining [that] we’re trying to nationalize the race,” Bevin told a crowd of Republicans at a prepicnic county GOP breakfast on Saturday. “Why? Because they’re embarrassed about their national party, and they ought to be. But they’re stuck with them, and they refuse to repudiate them.”
Trump will help Bevin — who is seeking to become the first Republican to win a second term as governor in this former Democratic bastion — reinforce that national image. The governor crossed into Ohio on Thursday to appear at Trump’s campaign rally in Cincinnati, where he received a presidential shoutout from the stage.
“He’s done an incredible job,” Trump said of Bevin. “And, you know, did you ever hear, sometimes you can do such a good job that not everybody appreciates it? But they had a lot of problems with pensions, and a lot of tremendous problems that a normal governor would never have been able to correct.”
Beshear is only happy to bring up the pension issue. Bevin signed a bill last month aimed at addressing the pension crush, but Democrats and organized labor criticized the new law for not delivering promised benefits to workers.
“Our voters are concerned about the kitchen table issues that keep them up at night. And those are four critical issues: public education, pensions, health care and jobs,” the Democrat told POLITICO in an interview.
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Trump’s landslide victory in 2016 was the capstone of Kentucky’s hard right turn over the past few decades. Once a presidential swing state — it voted for the winner in 11 consecutive elections from 1964 through 2004, including twice for Bill Clinton — the state is now off the map for Democrats.
Even the ancestral Democratic advantage in voter registration has dwindled. Registered Democrats now make up 49 percent of the statewide electorate, with Republicans constituting 42 percent.
Neither Bevin nor Beshear galvanized the electorate in the May primaries. Bevin won only 52 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, a sign of GOP dissatisfaction with the incumbent on which Beshear, who won only 38 percent in a competitive three-way race for the Democratic nomination, is trying to capitalize.
Asked how he can sell himself to voters who supported Trump or Bevin in the past, Beshear returned to what has become a common slogan for his campaign.
“The pitch isn’t about Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s about right vs. wrong,” he said. “And this governor has a failed record on everything important to Kentuckians.”
The Beshear camp said it isn’t worried the Democratic presidential primary, which has a number of top candidates lurching to the left, will step on its message.
“Kentuckians are looking for someone who is going to make life better for their families here in Kentucky,” former Gov. Steve Beshear, the candidate’s father, said. “They know that a governor doesn’t affect national policy.”
While Kentucky is electing its governor and other state officeholders this year, the Fancy Farm atmosphere was also consumed by next year’s Senate race. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is being challenged by Democrat Amy McGrath, a Marine veteran who lost a congressional race last year.
Speaking at Fancy Farm on Saturday, McConnell received the biggest cheers from Republicans at the picnic. He urged the crowd to reelect Bevin while also taking some shots at McGrath, who was absent. The fledgling Democratic candidate said she skipped the event in order to keep the attention on the governor’s race.
Both parties were well-represented at the picnic, a parish fundraiser that drew upward of a thousand people for bingo, political speeches and barbecue pork and mutton. There were many Andy Beshear signs, and the Democratic partisans booed Bevin and chanted “Moscow Mitch!” at McConnell. But Republicans dismissed them as outsiders bused in from out of state — namely the from other side of the Ohio River: bright-blue Illinois.
At the same time, Bevin is counting on support from his own out-of-state visitor: Trump. At the Cincinnati rally on Thursday, Trump instructed Bevin to “get a nice, big arena ready” for a presidential campaign event.
Bevin told POLITICO on Saturday he expects Trump to travel to Kentucky more than once before Election Day.
“He’ll come probably a couple times. I would bet in the next few weeks you’ll see both him and the vice president here, and then again later in the fall,” Bevin said. “They’ll be here. They’re good friends.”