A fully contested race


LEXINGTON — Barring a recanvass that reverses his 83-vote margin, Matt Bevin will be the Republican nominee for governor.

That sentence would startle a politically aware Kentuckian who just got back from a month off the grid. Bevin, a Tea Party favorite, was supposed to be the “show” horse in the race with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner, but when those two got into a wrangle that a Bevin ad depicted as a food fight, that gave him room to cut through the middle and hit the wire first.

The race’s final poll had shown Bevin with a marginal lead, but many observers, including this one, thought his voters would be harder to get to the polls and that the Louisville businessman lacked the organization to match the turnout operations of Comer and Heiner in a lightly voted primary.

However, Bevin was the most effective candidate on the stump and on television, and was an appealing alternative to voters turned off by a college girlfriend’s abuse charges against Comer and the Heiner campaign’s association with those charges. And Bevin did have a turnout operation, based on the following he developed from his first campaign.

A year ago, Bevin lost the U.S. Senate primary to longtime incumbent Mitch McConnell by 25 percentage points and later refused to specifically endorse the senator, the man who is most responsible for the Kentucky Republican Party’s gains during the past 30 years but has stubbed his toe in governor’s races.

Now Bevin is the party’s nominee against Attorney General Jack Conway, who was effectively unopposed for the Democratic nomination. That means he is about to become part of the party apparatus that McConnell controls, and that will be something to see as the party tries to elect only its second governor in 11 tries.

The matchmaker is likely to be Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party type who beat McConnell protégé Trey Grayson in the 2010 Senate primary, then used McConnell’s advice to beat Conway. Paul endorsed McConnell over Bevin last year, and didn’t play in the latest primary, but was very quick to congratulate Bevin Tuesday night – in a tweet that he deleted after Comer put the race back into doubt with huge margins in his home Southern Kentucky.

One wonders how much McConnell advice Bevin is willing to take, given McConnell’s bare-knuckle tactics in their primary, which clearly irritated Bevin. But it probably helps the party that McConnell’s allies didn’t raise and spend money for attacks this month to thwart Bevin’s surge.

McConnell and his people saw Bevin coming down the stretch. Why did they not try to take him out? Perhaps they thought that with Heiner and Comer both damaged and creating bad blood, it would be easier to put the party back together with Bevin as the nominee than either of them – and that trying to take him out would complicate that task.

Bevin can probably use all the advice he can get from McConnell, because Democrats will try to paint him as a Tea Party ideologue who would jerk the state sharply to the right.

Gov. Steve Beshear started that Wednesday morning in his monthly interview with Jack Pattie on Lexington’s WVLK-AM. Beshear said Conway wants to expand early-childhood education, while Bevin wants to repeal it. Actually, Bevin said in a debate that the program should be reconsidered because research shows the benefits of the federal Head Start program disappear by the third grade.

That’s one of several examples of Bevin’s trouble with the facts. Head Start is a much narrower program than early-childhood education, which among the states is usually a more comprehensive program.

In his otherwise impressive victory speech, Bevin continued to conflate Beshear’s expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor with the state health-insurance exchange, where Kentuckians can sign up for Medicaid or private insurance.

Bevin said he would move them to the federal exchange, claiming that the state exchange would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Actually, the exchange is paid for by the insurance companies who use it; the millions would be for the Medicaid expansion, which has added more than 400,000 Kentuckians to the program, once the state begins paying for a small part of it in 2017.

Bevin probably doesn’t want to raise the specter of taking health coverage away from a huge number of people, but he will be forced to face the facts. McConnell will probably advise him to use the word “Obamacare” and the first three syllables of that word as much as possible, since the president has been so bad for the Democratic brand in Kentucky.

McConnell used that strategy to great effect last fall in his general-election race against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who famously refused to say whether she voted for Obama. Conway already has a line for that: “I voted for the president, and then I sued him,” to block anti-coal regulations designed to limit climate change.

That’s a neat turn of phrase, but the Republican comeback is likely to be, “Why didn’t you sue him on Obamacare?” – as most GOP attorneys general did. And Republican-allied groups are likely to make much of Conway’s refusal to keep defending the state constitution’s same-sex marriage ban after a federal judge struck it down.

Conway has a good record as attorney general but hasn’t demonstrated that he has stirred much excitement among Democrats. He can surely stir some interest by scaring people about Bevin – in much the same way that one of his mentors, Paul Patton, successfully depicted 1995 GOP nominee Larry Forgy as an instrument of national Republicans set on rolling back New Deal programs that had helped the state.

Democrats did that with the help of money outside the system of campaign spending limits and public financing, which Republicans later forced them to repeal. We are now a long way from that system, with unlimited, anonymous contributions to supposedly independent political action committees.

Even if Bevin can’t attract support from “super PACs,” he probably can continue to use his own fortune. Conway also has personal wealth, but probably not as much as Bevin. Independent candidate Drew Curtis has some money and could make things even more interesting.

Some Democrats hoped Bevin would win the primary, thinking he would be the easiest candidate for Conway to beat. They also thought that about Rand Paul. This will be a fully contested race, one that could put the state on a much different course. Much is at stake.

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.

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