LEXINGTON — Five months ago, Matt Bevin was almost an afterthought in the Republican primary. Today, the Louisville businessman is still something of a mystery – but he’s more likely than not to be the next governor of Kentucky, and he even says so!
“I intend to be your next governor and I think increasingly it looks like I will be,” he said at a Commerce Lexington luncheon Thursday.
When a coal lobbyist asked Bevin how he would go about hiring people to help him run state government, he said he was already vetting possible appointees, and asked for suggestions: “We’re getting out in front of it, not to be presumptuous, but because we must,” due to the short time between election and inauguration. “I got no favors to pay back, and the odds are I’m gonna be your next governor. It’s up to you to decide, but the odds are increasingly high.”
Asked afterward why he thinks so, Bevin cited “trends” and polls. The latest public poll in the race, the Bluegrass Poll sponsored by the state’s two largest newspapers and two television stations, showed him trailing Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway within the margin of error, but Bevin dismissed the poll as liberally biased and said all others have shown him ahead. The only other public poll since the primary showed him ahead by a smaller margin.
The latest “trend” in the race is more energy among Republicans, driven mainly by the fight over Democratic Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses, and her contempt of court. When U.S. District Judge David Bunning conditionally released Davis from jail last week, Bevin was there to bask in the glow at a rally with her and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
Since Bevin and Conway aren’t stirring much excitement (Donald Trump is sucking up most of the political oxygen), and Kentucky is one of the more religious states, a big turnout of religious conservatives could make the difference for Bevin. There’s evidence that is building, though Davis’s release may temper it.
In a majority-Democratic coal county not too far from Rowan, one of my reliable informants (to whom I promised confidentiality) told me that he went to three churches of varied denominations last Sunday and was surprised to find that the preachers all spoke about “Christian persecution. It was the quintessential ‘enough is enough’ sermon and they all were pleading to the congregation that it was time to stand up for their religious freedom.”
Meanwhile, Conway is doing little to energize Democrats, except those (including some Republicans, as in Oldham County last month) who attend his numerous, private fund-raisers – which he must hold because he has no idea how big a check the wealthy Bevin might write to his own campaign, or how much outside groups backing Bevin can pour into TV attacks that have been running for weeks.
Bevin appears to be taking a pass on raising money for himself, saying in reply to the question about hiring that Kentucky hasn’t had a chance to elect “someone who is unencumbered by anybody and anything” since Democrat John Y. Brown Jr. was elected in 1979, and “It is equally unnerving to Republicans and Democrats.”
Bevin said he would appoint people with “decades of experience” in their fields of responsibility and “on average have at least as much gray hair as I do.” He added later, “One thing John Y. did well is, he brought together professionals… . He was agnostic, as I will be, with respect to party. I don’t give a rip whether they’re Republican or Democrat. The idea that we need to get our hands in the cookie jar now, and we’re gonna pay back, and we’re gonna get our turn – that’s the thing that’s been killing this state and others for far too long.”
That sort of rhetoric worked for Brown in his campaign, and the approach worked for him and the taxpayers during his administration. But I fear that a big difference in Brown and Bevin is that Brown knew what he didn’t know – and relied on smart people to guide him.
At times Bevin still seems to think that he’s the smartest person in the room, and he keeps spouting some of his same old silliness about Medicaid. But he has been willing to meet with interest groups and civic leaders and is giving hints that his ideology may give way to practicality.
One example of that is the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow local sales taxes. In the primary, Bevin said any higher taxes would push jobs out of the state. Thursday, he said he’s still instinctively against it, but “There are times and places where I think there’s a case to be made for it, and I’m hearing that more and more from people… . I will come with a blank sheet of paper, including ideas I have on things… . I’m not a zealot for anything, one way or the other. I’m willing to listen to good pragmatic people.”
So, as Bevin is filling out his blank sheets, Conway is filling up his campaign’s bank account. On Tuesday, they meet independent Drew Curtis in a televised debate sponsored by the Bluegrass Poll sponsors. It will be the first broad-spectrum debate of the race. Maybe more people will start paying attention. Conway had better hope so.
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.