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West Virginia’s Jim Justice is South’s most popular governor; Georgia’s Brian Kemp the least

Morning Consult poll shows Democratic governors with aggressive COVID-19 strategies with higher approval than GOP governors who have resisted mandates

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) – West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is the South’s most popular chief executive, with Alabama’s Kay Ivey close behind in new polls on gubernatorial approval from the polling firm Morning Consult.

The polls, taken over the course of the last four months and released November 11, also show that Georgia Republican Brian Kemp’s approval rating among registered voters was just 42%, making him the region’s least popular chief executive as he heads into what is expected to be a tough re-election battle next year against furious opposition from Donald Trump.

The poll in Kentucky had better news for Democrat Andy Beshear, whose approval rating stood at 54%, despite taking considerable fire from Republicans over his COVID-19 policies.

Beshear will face voters again in 2023, as will Mississippi Republican Tate Reeves. However, the approval rating for Reeves, who may face a primary challenge from House Speaker Philip Gunn, stood at just 49%, making him and Kemp the only two Southern governors with approval ratings below 50% ahead of a run for his third term.

Morning Consult did not report disapproval numbers, so it was unclear if Reeves and Kemp were actually under water in their approval numbers, with more people disapproving than approving.

The approval rating for Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who has taken the leading in fighting mask and vaccine mandates, stood at 52% ahead of a Democratic challenge in 2022. Texas’s Greg Abbott, who has taken a similar line of resistance against mandates, had an approval rating of 50%.

Three of the region’s Democratic governors who have been more aggressive with COVID-19 mitigation measures – Beshear, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards – had higher approval ratings than DeSantis and Abbott, although within the poll’s margin of error.

Justice’s approval rating stood at 65%, despite a string of headlines about financial and regulatory problems for companies owned by his family and an odd dispute about whether he should be hired to coach a boy’s high school basketball team.

Ivey, who became governor in 2017 when her predecessor resigned in a sex scandal, had an approval rating at 62%, as she heads into a re-election race in which she will be heavily favored.

However, she, too, has run afoul of Trump over cancellation of a June rally in Mobile, and he is reportedly trying to find a primary challenger to run against her.

Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt also appear to be in strong shape for 2022, with Lee’s approval at 55% and Stitt’s at 54%.

The other Southern governor up next year, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, stood at 52%.

Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson has a 57% approval rating as he heads toward the exit due to term limits – despite being one of the very few elected Republicans willing to offer criticism of Trump.

Hutchinson has said he will not back Trump if he runs for the White House again in 2024 and that relitigating the 2020 election would be a “recipe for disaster.” He has raised his national profile in recent months, with numerous appearances on Sunday talk shows, prompting speculation that he might make his own presidential run in 2024.

Kemp has drawn Trump’s active wrath for refusing to go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State. Former Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue is considering a primary challenge, and the GOP nominee will likely be facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp narrowly beat in 2018.

Two Southern Democratic governors who are in the middle of their second and final term – Edwards and Cooper – had positive approval ratings, at 53% and 52%, respectively.

Morning Consult gathered the responses from July 21 to October 20 among registered voters in each state. The margin of error was +/-4%.

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Veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren leaves Republican Party to become independent

Decision by Hendren, nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson, sparks speculation about 2022 bid for governor

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

LITTLE ROCK (CFP) — Saying he was disturbed by the corrosive effects of hyper-partisanship and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren announced Thursday that he was leaving the Republican Party, becoming an independent and forming a new centrist political organization, Common Ground AR.

The move prompted speculation that Hendren could launch an independent bid for governor in 2022, setting up a general election showdown with a Donald Trump-aligned Republican candidate.

State Senator Jim Hendren, I-Arkansas, announces party switch (From YouTube)

In a statement posted to YouTube, Hendren said the attack on the Capitol was the “final straw” that prompted him to leave the GOP, which he has represented for nearly 15 years as a legislator, including four years as Senate majority leader from 2015 to 2019.

“I asked myself what in the world I would tell my grandchildren when they asked one day what happened and what did I do about it?” Hendren said. “At the end of the day, I want to be able to tell my family, my friends, and the people I serve that I did everything I could to do right by them.”

“I’m still a conservative. But I’m one whose values about decency, civility and compassion I just don’t see in my party anymore,” he said. “I haven’t changed. My party has.”

Watch video of Hendren’s full statement at end of story.

Hendren, 57, who represents a district in Northwest Arkansas, comes from a prominent and politically connected Arkansas political family. His father, Kim, is a former legislator, and he is the nephew of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson and former U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson.

While not mentioning Donald Trump by name, Hendren made it clear that his decision to leave was prompted by Trump’s impact on the Republican Party.

“I watched the former president actively fan the flames of racist rhetoric, make fun of those with disabilities, bully his enemies, and talk about women in ways that would never be tolerated in my home or business,” Hendren said. “As he did this from the highest office in the land, I realized that my daughters and granddaughters were hearing it, too. And I worried about the example this set for my sons and grandsons.”

“And I watched as this behavior went on with nobody holding him to account and our party leaders too often taking a back seat rather than leading,” he said.

As for a run for governor in 2022, Hendren told the Arkansas publication Talk Business & Politics that he was putting that on the “back burner,” although he said he believes there would be a “hunger” among state voters for such a candidate.

The Republican contest for governor is shaping up as a battle between former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has also been a staunch Trump supporter.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin announced last week that he was dropping out of the governor’s race and would instead run for attorney general.

Responding to Hendren’s decision to leave the GOP, Republican state chair Jonelle Fulmer said Hendren had never voiced his concerns to party leaders and noted that he had welcomed support from the party, including during his re-election race in November.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records” of Sanders and Rutledge, she said.

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Andrew Gillum withdraws from politics, enters rehab after encounter with police in hotel room

Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor in 2018, was found “inebriated” in a Miami Beach hotel room where drugs were present

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost a bid for Florida governor in 2018, has announced he will withdraw from political life and enter a rehab program for alcoholism after after police found him “inebriated” Friday night in a Miami Beach hotel room where paramedics had been called to treat a man for a drug overdose.

Police found what they believe was crystal methamphetamine in the room with Gillum and his companion, Travis Dyson, who was taken for treatment at a local hospital.

Andrew Gillum

Gillum, 40, was not arrested or charged and denied he was using drugs.

He announced Sunday that he would enter an undisclosed treatment facility for “alcohol abuse,” which he attributed to depression in the wake of his defeat in the governor’s race.

“This has been a wake-up call for me,” he said in a statement. “I am committed to doing the personal work to heal fully and show up in the world as a more complete person”

Gillum said he would be “stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future,” including working as a political analyst for CNN and leading an organization he set up to help his gubernatorial run, Forward Florida Action, which has been working to register 1 million new voters ahead of the 2020 election.

According to the police report of the incident, paramedics and police were called to a hotel in South Beach by a man identified as Aldo Mejias, who told them he arrived at the room to find Dyson and Gillum “under the influence of an unknown substance.”

Dyson was having trouble breathing, and Gillum was vomiting in the bathroom, the report said.

When police arrived, Gillum “was unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state,” according to the report. Gillum left the hotel on his own, police said.

Police found three small baggies of what is believed to be crystal meth in the room, according to the report.

Mejias told police he had given Dyson his credit card to rent the hotel room. The report does not describe what connection, if any, he had with Gillum.

In 2018, Gillum, then mayor of Tallahassee, surged to a surprise win in the Democratic primary for Florida governor. He lost to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis by 34,000 votes in November.

Last year 2019, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from Forward Florida and Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign. The scope of the federal investigation is still unclear, and no charges have been brought.

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“Matt Bevin can rot in hell”: Outrage erupts in Kentucky over flurry of last-minute pardons

Legislators call for investigation into pardon given to brother of man who hosted Bevin fundraiser

By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Outrage is building in Kentucky over more than 400 pardons and commutations issued by former Republican Governor Matt Bevin before he left office, with the GOP leader of the state Senate now calling for a federal investigation and a victim’s family member quoted on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper saying Bevin “can rot in hell.”

Among those pardoned by Bevin: A man serving a 23-year sentence for raping a 9-year-old girl in Kenton County; a man serving 20 years for killing a Bowling Green motorist in 2014 while driving 90 mph down a two-lane road with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit; and a woman serving a life sentence for dumping her newborn baby in an outdoor toilet in Grayson County in 2003.

Headline in Louisville Courier-Journal

But the pardon drawing the most scrutiny was given to Patrick Ryan Baker, who was serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a 2014 home-invasion homicide in Knox County — and whose brother and sister-in-law hosted a fundraiser for Bevin that raised more than $21,000 to pay off debt from his 2015 gubernatorial campaign.

Baker’s two co-defendants did not receive a pardon from Bevin; Baker, who was the triggerman in the slaying of Donald Mills, will now be released from prison, over the strenuous objections of prosecutors who put him there.

In its story on the Baker pardon, the Louisville Courier-Journal used as a headline a quote from a member of the Mills family: “Matt Bevin can rot in hell.”

Even U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — in Frankfort to file the paperwork for his 2020 re-election bid — weighed in on the pardons when questioned by reporters, calling Bevin’s actions “completely inappropriate.”

But Bevin, who called the evidence against Baker “sketchy at best,” is fighting back against criticism of the pardons, tweeting that “myriad statements and suggestions that financial or political considerations played a part in the decision making process are both highly offensive and entirely false.”

“Not one person receiving a pardon would I not welcome as a co-worker, neighbor, or to sit beside me or any member of my family in a church pew or at a public event,” Bevin said. “No community is either more or less safe now than it was before the pardons and commutations given over the past four years.”

The pardons are but the latest  in a slew of controversies that dogged Bevin’s single term in office and placed him among the nation’s least popular governors. Despite Kentucky’s Republican tilt, he was defeated for re-election in November by Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who took over on Dec. 10.

In all, Bevin issued 428 pardons and commutations between his defeat on Nov. 5 and when he left the governor’s post. Because a governor’s power to issue pardons is absolute, there is no way to overturn them.

However, Senate President Robert Stivers — like Bevin, a Republican — is calling on federal prosecutors to investigate the pardons, which he called “a travesty and perversion of justice.”

“Our citizens, and especially the crime victims and their families, deserve better,” he said.

Democratic legislators have also called on incoming Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron to look into the pardons after he takes office next week.

Alan Simpson, the lawyer for the family of Jeremy Pryor, the victim in the Bowling Green DUI murder case, said in a statement that the pardon “screams of either a complete lack of empathy for other human beings, willful ignorance to the truth or outright corruption.” He said Pryor’s family would also press for an investigation, according to a report in the Bowling Green Daily News.

Michael “Drew” Hardy was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison after for crashing his Jeep into the back of Pryor’s vehicle after a day of heavy drinking in 2014. According to trial testimony, his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, and he was driving 90 mph down a two-lane road at the time of the crash.

In the paperwork accompanying Hardy’s pardon, Bevin wrote that he did not believe his continued incarceration serve any purpose and that he “will arise each day for the rest of his life with a debt that he cannot possibly repay,” according to the Daily News.

In the Mills case, Baker and two other men impersonating police officers forced their way into a home in Knox County to rob it, with Donald Mills and his wife and children inside. Baker, who shot Donald Mills, was convicted of reckless homicide and robbery and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Bevin did not offer an explanation for why he pardoned Baker but not his co-defendants.

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New Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear takes office with call to promote “common good”

Beshear inaugurated in Frankfort after ousting Republican Matt Bevin in November vote

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

FRANKFORT, Kentucky (CFP) — Kentucky’s new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, took office Tuesday with a plea for unity after the tumultuous tenure of his predecessor, calling on Kentuckians to “come together for the common good.”

“I am now the governor of all of the people of Kentucky,” Beshear said in his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol in Frankfort, amid an early winter chill. “I will be a governor just as much for those who voted against me as those who voted for me because I view this election as an opportunity — an opportunity to heal wounds, an opportunity to work together instead of angling for political gain.”

Beshear said “we have have to begin looking at each other as teammates, as fellow Kentuckians, not as Republicans and Democrats, not as liberals and conservatives, not as rural or urban.”

Watch Governor Beshear’s inaugural address at bottom of this story.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear gives inaugural address (From KET via YouTube)

“Today gives us a change to get this right — to be a lighthouse in the storm, to be a beacon in the night,” he said.

As is tradition in Kentucky, Beshear had already taken his oath of office at midnight, when the term of his predecessor, Republican Matt Bevin, officially ended, before repeating the oath in the afternoon ceremony.

The new governor said one of his top priorities would be to give an across-the-board $2,000 raise to state teachers, who clashed with Bevin amid protests over pay and pensions over the past two years. In one of his first acts as governor, Beshear replaced the entire State Board of Education to uproot Bevin’s appointees.

Beshear’s lieutenant governor, Jacqueline Coleman — also sworn in to office Tuesday — is a public school teacher and will also serve as education secretary in Beshear’s Cabinet. In his inaugural address, Bevshear noted that “Jacqueline has gone from being locked out to lieutenant governor.”

Beshear also said he would sign an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 100,000 felons who have served their time for non-violent offenses.

“They deserve to participation in our great democracy,” he said. “By taking this step, by restoring these voting rights, we declare that everyone in Kentucky counts — we all matter.”

Beshear, 42, served four years as attorney general before defeating Bevin by 5,100 votes in November’s election. He took the oath of office as his father, Steve Beshear, who served as governor from 2007-2015, looked on.

In addition to clashing with teachers and public employees over pension reform plans they opposed, Bevin also had run-ins with his fellow Republicans who control the state legislature and his own lieutenant governor, heading into re-election bid with the lowest approval ratings of any U.S. governor.

He wrapped himself in the mantle of President Donald Trump, who carried Kentucky by 30 points in 2016 and came to the Bluegrass to campaign on his behalf. But in the end, Bevin’s association with Trump did not save him, although Republicans swept the other five statewide offices on November’s ballot.

Video of Beshear’s inaugural address

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