FANCY FARM — Heading to this weekend’s Fancy Farm Picnic conjured up memories of the 2009 political speaking, which echo strongly today as Kentucky prepares to elect a new governor.
Attorney General Jack Conway, seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate six years ago, declared himself “one tough son of a bitch,” with the Roman Catholic bishop sitting at his side. The gaffe nearly beat him, and illustrated how unnatural a campaigner he was — and is.
That year’s picnic was the coming-out for a little-known ophthalmologist named Rand Paul, who smartly filled the vacuum created by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s derailment of GOP Sen. Jim Bunning.
With McConnell saying privately that Bunning couldn’t win, Bunning couldn’t raise money, so he ended his re-election campaign shortly before the picnic. What they may not have realized was that there was a rising anger in the country about the first six months of the Obama administration, which could have carried Bunning to a third term.
Instead, the beneficiary of that Tea Party anger was Paul, whose years of presidential campaigning with his libertarian father Ron had given him some walking-around sense about politics. He knew something was happening, and that he might be able to ride it into the Senate. He did, whipping McConnell primary pick Trey Grayson, and Conway in a general election that had an unusually high 50 percent turnout — illustrating voters’ eagerness to go vote against Obama.
Today, Paul is a sort of role model for Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee for governor, whose nomination once seemed about as unlikely as Paul’s. Bevin got just 35 percent of the vote against McConnell in the 2014 Senate primary, but those 125,787 voters gave him a base. He got 70,480 votes (33 percent) in winning this year’s gubernatorial primary by 83 votes, after his opponents trashed each other and allowed him to cut through the middle with good ads and personal campaign skills.
Bevin’s base is one of anger, one that now goes beyond the Tea Party and Obama haters to social issues. When the Supreme Court voted 5-4 for nationwide same-sex marriage, it was the climax of a long run of social issues that have turned conservative Kentucky Democrats into Republicans: School prayer, civil rights, gun control, Vietnam-era student unrest, abortion, gays in the military and now gay marriage. For many religious conservatives, the world has been turned upside down.
Gay marriage may be a settled issue in the rest of the country, but not in Kentucky, because Conway didn’t appeal one of the federal court rulings that the Supreme Court upheld — and shed tears in explaining his decision. He said his wife had told him the night before that he was at his worst when he wasn’t authentic. His uncharacteristically authentic moment will probably show up in attack ads.
This is more of an issue than expected because a few county clerks — who fail to realize that public office is not a private possession — have refused to issue ANY marriage licenses, citing their religious beliefs (wouldn’t want to be accused of discrimination, don’t you know).
The religious right is fired up. Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation of Kentucky and the Rev. Hershael York acted like Republican tools as they attacked Conway on “Kentucky Tonight” on KET. They accused Conway of not doing his job, ignoring a law that lets him decide whether to appeal.
We will probably also see ads with the White House lit up in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court decision. Obama has been so bad for the Democratic brand in Kentucky that he is the gift that keeps on giving to Republicans.
“It looks increasingly likely that Bevin could ride one last anti-Obama campaign to victory,” Karyn Bruggeman of the National Journal wrote last week, citing the latest anti-Obama ad from the Republican Governors Association.
Making things worse for Democrats is the surge of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential contest, appealing to a smorgasbord of prejudices, frustrations and anger at the political system in general and incumbents in particular. Conway has worked in government most of his adult life; Bevin’s only government service is the Army.
While last week’s Bluegrass Poll showed Conway with a marginal lead, it also had evidence of anti-incumbent feeling: Gov. Steve Beshear’s approval number went down, and independent Drew Curtis, though he has expressed some liberal views, appeared to take more votes from Bevin, showing how they both appeal to anti-incumbent voters.
The poll has a ticking time bomb for Conway: He was supported by more than one in four voters who said they were conservative, and by 15 percent who said they were very conservative. A few more flights of TV ads about Conway and Obama, and a few pallets of direct mail on the same-sex marriage issue, and many of those voters are likely to switch or stay home.
The poll results require one very large caveat: It’s all about turnout. Survey USA interviewed 856 registered voters, 685 of whom they would vote. That 80 percent is fairly typical, but the actual turnout is likely to be less than half that – and right now Republican voters are much more energized.
As retiree Pete Schuler wrote in an online comment on last week’s column, “A perfect storm is brewing to the advantage of Bevin: Confederate flags, gay marriage, ‘religious liberty,’ ‘the war on Christians’ and hatred for our black president are all issues which will motivate extreme right-wing voters to go to the polls.”
Yes, race matters. The 2008 general-election exit poll found that about 37 percent of Kentucky voters said race was a factor in their vote for president, and 26 percent said it was an important factor. In the primary, about 16 percent of the white voters who chose Hillary Clinton over Obama said the candidates’ race was important to them. In the recent poll, Bevin ran strongest in the First Congressional District, once the state’s most Democratic area — mainly because it is and was more like the old Confederacy than any other area.
So, as Republicans wrap Obama around Conway, Democrats will have to put horns and a tail on Bevin to win, and they will have to do more than dredge up the stale “East Coast con man” attacks McConnell pasted him with last year.
Bevin backed off one of his most radical stances last week, saying he wouldn’t end Beshear’s Medicaid expansion but would move to a modified program, perhaps like Indiana’s, which state Senate President Robert Stivers had mentioned as an alternative.
But during and after the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce forum with Conway, Bevin offered fresh weirdness. Asked what one program he would prioritize, he said, “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.” He explained, “To do so causes other people to think they’re not going to be heard.” Afterward, he accused a TV reporter who is headed to a job in another state of working for Conway. And he had to be badgered into admitting that he had said he would immediately end the Medicaid expansion.
Bevin is as thin-skinned and hot-headed a campaigner as Conway is an unnatural one. Voters want authenticity, but they also want an even temperament.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.