Here’s where the Kentucky governor’s race stands

Published 6:10 am Thursday, July 19, 2018


Guest columnist

Just when we were wondering when the 2019 governor’s race would begin, it did. But the fact that it’s late in starting reminds us that it may be like none we have seen before.

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The oddities start with a coy incumbent. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin seems to enjoy keeping us guessing about his plans, but the available indications are that he’s running for re-election. Because he can self-finance his campaign and holds the office, he can wait — and he is likely glad to defer the extra news-media scrutiny he will get as a candidate.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, Bevin’s main political adversary since they took office, could have also waited instead of announcing last Monday. As a statewide officeholder, he will speak at the Aug. 4 Fancy Farm Picnic in far Western Kentucky, and his legal tussles with Bevin will help keep him in the news.

But Beshear is following the traditional playbook that worked for then-AG Jack Conway in the 2015 primary race — get in when you’re ready to start raising money, report a big war chest and crowd out the other hopefuls. But this race is different than last time, when the candidate’s father, Steve Beshear, was term-limited and couldn’t run.

Some Democrats say Andy Beshear got in now because he would rather run against Bevin, who has become more controversial than most governors, than stand-ins such as 1st District U.S. Rep. James Comer, who lost the 2015 primary to Bevin by 83 votes, and Bevin ally Hal Heiner, who ran third.

However, baiting Bevin into the race is likely to increase Bevin’s attacks on the Beshears as corrupt — a flawed guilt-by-association strategy based on the bribery conviction of Tim Longmeyer, who was Andy Beshear’s top deputy and his father’s personnel secretary — but one that is easy for Bevin to use in social and other media.

Another difference in this race and 2015 is that there are more prospective Democratic candidates: House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, former state auditor Adam Edelen (crowded out by Conway last time, then ousted by Bevin’s coattails), Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (term-limited this time, but a lawyer who could run for AG) and first-term state Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville.

Adkins and Grimes have indicated that they will defer any decision on 2019 until after the Nov. 6 election, when Democrats hope to take back the state House. Conway rankled legislative Democrats by raising money in 2014, when their control was first threatened. Interestingly, Beshear’s announcement included an endorsement of term limits for legislators.

Edelen, who showed up at Democratic press conferences to protest Bevin’s withdrawal of Medicaid dental and vision benefits from one in 10 Kentuckians, told me he wants to be governor, but his business ventures “are at a critical time, and I need to work on that through the summer.” He said he meant astronomical summer, not meteorological summer, which ends Aug. 31.

The autumnal equinox is Sept. 23, a week before the end of the quarterly fundraising period. That’s a big test for Beshear, a young, first-term officeholder who wouldn’t have been elected if he wasn’t the son of a two-term governor — and who faced a rematch with the man who almost beat him, state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville.

In his seven-stop announcement tour, Beshear drew small crowds and didn’t mention health care, his father’s signature issue, but named a well-received running mate for lieutenant governor: Jacqueline Coleman of Harrodsburg, an assistant principal in Nelson County and daughter of former state Rep. Jack Coleman. The Colemans are made of tough stuff.

The selection of an educator was less a symbol of an issue — Republicans’ efforts to change teachers’ pensions — than confirmation that the issue has created a base for Beshear beyond his father’s network. His alliance with teachers has turned him from a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time player into a plausible nominee for governor.

A Beshear campaign video illustrates that. Speaking to a crowd of protesting teachers in the Capitol, he was much more forceful than in the scripted press conferences that have been most Kentuckians’ window to his work — and showed he can draw strength from crowds, which could make him a more robust candidate who inspires confidence.

His announcement rhetoric was robust, blasting Bevin: “Instead of leadership, we see name-calling and bullying. Instead of working together, our government says it’s my way or the highway. … We will restore honesty, decency and transparency in state government.”

Bevin will give as good (or bad) as he gets from Beshear, and the other Democrats will watch closely to exploit any weakness in the race’s unproven first entrant. So, book your hotel room not just for Fancy Farm, but preliminary events where they all will campaign. Others may not be declared like Beshear is, but they will be testing the track.

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.