Could McConnell face a primary challenge from Bevin in 2020?

Published 6:53 am Thursday, May 10, 2018

As the eyes of the world fall briefly upon Louisville and Kentucky, proprietors of this space have long felt obliged to update you on the state’s often curious political landscape and put it in national context.

Such context may be more important than ever because one of the most crucial relationships in the world is the one between President Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The president is a disruptive amateur; McConnell is an institutionalist professional in his 34th year in the Senate, his 12th as leader of his caucus and fourth as majority leader, the senator who sets the chamber’s agenda and deals with the president.

McConnell and Trump have had their problems, most notably after Sen. John McCain’s “no” vote killed repeal of Obamacare, but McConnell has delivered for the president, first by holding open a Supreme Court seat just after the 2016 primaries began, then getting the all-but-nominated Trump to issue a list of potential judicial nominees — a gambit that brought him skeptical evangelicals that he needed to win.

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Now, as Trump fulminates about the investigation of Russian interference in the election, McConnell is the key roadblock to Senate action on a bill to keep Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. McConnell says “There’s no indication that Mueller’s going to be fired.”

That is a strange thing to say when Mueller’s fate is the chief object of speculation in Washington, fueled by Trump himself. However, we don’t know what goes on between the president and the leader in private. The guess here is that McConnell has told Trump something like this: “Fire Mueller, and you’ll probably get impeached — and I can’t guarantee that the Senate won’t convict you.”

That may be wishful thinking, but it’s based partly on another guess, that McConnell knows more about Mueller’s evidence than we do. Trump keeps behaving like a man who knows he has obstructed justice, and if there’s a smoking gun, McConnell and other GOP leaders will have to decide whether to stick with a president who needs ousting but has a firm grip on most of their primary voters — especially in Kentucky, where 73 percent of Republicans approved of his performance in a poll last month.

McConnell, 75, says he will seek a seventh six-year term in 2020. He began his 2014 race with low approval ratings, but won by running against Barack Obama, who was never popular in Kentucky. Now McConnell’s ratings are lower, 30 percent overall and 37 percent among Republicans, and running against Obama and/or Hillary Clinton two years hence would be a stale strategy.

But McConnell’s next electoral challenge could come in a primary with Gov. Matt Bevin, who challenged him in 2014. Bevin got only 35 percent, but it gave him an anti-establishment base that helped him win the 2015 gubernatorial primary by 83 votes. His election was followed a year later by a GOP takeover of the state House, giving Kentucky its first fully Republican government.

As governor, Bevin has been a disrupter somewhat like Trump, which worked well for him until he proposed big changes in the state’s badly underfunded pensions. When teachers objected, Republican legislators abandoned Bevin’s proposal. He belittled the lawmakers and disparaged the teachers, calling some of them “thugs,” but then the GOP legislature did something remarkable and historic: It raised taxes to fund education and overrode Bevin’s vetoes (which in Kentucky takes only a majority).

The House also passed resolutions condemning Bevin for making unfounded claims that children left home alone, due to a quickly called protest by teachers, had been sexually assaulted or otherwise physically harmed, or had been introduced to drugs. It was vintage Bevin, flying off the handle at people he detests but does not fully understand.

As soon as the legislature adjourned, Bevin reasserted his authority by remaking the state school board, which quickly forced out the superintendent, replacing him with a charter-schools advocate who has moved to take over Louisville’s public schools, citing administrative bloat and an achievement gap between black and white students.

The schools need help, but Bevin’s heavy-handed approach is probably costing him political support when he can ill afford to lose it. His job approval last month was 32 percent, and Republicans were evenly divided. That has led some to speculate that the wealthy Bevin, 51, won’t seek re-election and will focus on challenging McConnell – or, if Trump and Vice President Mike Pence falter, running for president.

He grew up in New Hampshire, the first presidential-primary state, and has made at least one political trip there as governor. But the betting here is that he goes after McConnell. That could provide openings for Democrats in a state gone recently red.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier Journal.