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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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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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Insight: What do 2019’s election results in the South tell us about 2020?

Wins in Kentucky and Louisiana aren’t nirvana for Democrats, but they do show limits to GOP strategy of socialist pigeonholing

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Now that the dust has cleared from elections in four Southern states earlier this month, what are the lessons, if any, for 2020 elections in which both the presidency and control of Congress will be on the line?

Some pundits in the chattering class and Democratic politicians have looked at victories by Democrats in governor’s races in deep red Kentucky and Louisiana and gleefully found evil portends for their GOP rivals next year.

That would be overreach.

Editor Rich Shumate

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear won because the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, was as popular as a skin rash after four years of gratuitous insults and irritation. In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards — that rarest of creatures, a pro-life Democrat — had strong job approval numbers and ran as far away as he could from the Elizabeth Warrens and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes in his party.

Trump couldn’t push Republicans over the finish line in either race, but Republicans carried all of the other statewide contests in both states and had a clean sweep in of state offices in Mississippi. So it would be a mistake to see these Democratic wins as a referendum on Trump, and Democrats shouldn’t find much solace in what was otherwise a rather dismal showing.

Still, the wins by Beshear and Edwards showed that the Republican strategy of calling Democrats socialists and ginning up the faithful with Trump rallies has its limits, even in states that the president carried by more than 20 points. In states with more even strength between the parties — Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina — that strategy could be even less effective next year, particularly at the presidential level and in U.S. Senate races in the latter three states.

What should be of more concern to Republicans is the fact that the Democratic vote in cities and suburban areas was unusually strong and decidedly Democratic in 2019, mirroring a trend seen in 2018 when Democrats took control of the U.S. House.

Beshear won in Kentucky by carrying Louisville and Lexington and their suburbs by a margin of 135,000 votes, swamping Republican margins in the rest of the state. In Louisiana, Edwards won by carrying Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans by almost 165,000 votes, including winning almost 90 percent of the vote in Orleans Parish and carrying suburban Jefferson Parish — home of House GOP Whip Steve Scalise — by 14 points.

The news for Republicans was even worse in Virginia, where Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature — in elections that used maps drawn by Republicans to protect Republicans — by gaining more ground in the suburbs around Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk. Among the casualties was the last Republican House member representing a district in the inner Washington suburbs, which 20 years ago was undisputed GOP territory.

In 2018, newfound Democratic strength in the suburbs allowed the party to take competitive U.S. House seats in Atlanta, Richmond, Miami, Dallas and Houston — and get surprise wins in Oklahoma City and Charleston. If that trend, also seen in 2019, continues into 2020, it could potentially put more seats into play in Little Rock, Tampa, Lexington, San Antonio and across North Carolina, where a court recently forced Republican legislators to redraw gerrymandered maps.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are defending two seats in Georgia and seats in Texas and North Carolina where Democrats now have a plausible path to victory, if they can push the urban/suburban vote past the pro-Trump margin in small towns and rural areas as they did in 2019. And the eyes of the nation will be on Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be defending his seat in the wake of Beshear’s breakthrough.

McConnell’s job approval numbers are 13 points underwater in Kentucky, according to the latest Morning Consult survey, making him one of the nation’s least popular senators. However, McConnell has substantially more political acumen than Bevin and a much better political machine, and he could benefit if he faces a Democrat whom he can pigeonhole as a leftist.

McConnell’s campaign is already taking aim at his only announced Democratic rival, Amy McGrath, who raised $8.6 million in an unsuccessful congressional race in 2018 but started the campaign with an embarrassing flip-flop on whether she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (First she said yes, then she said no.)

Rocky Adkins, a folksy, pro-life state legislator from Eastern Kentucky who ran second to Beshear in this year’s gubernatorial primary, is also considering entering the race and could prove a much more slippery target for McConnell’s ad makers.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take control of the Senate; three seats will be enough if a Democrat also carries the White House. That task will be very uphill if they don’t make breakthroughs in the South.

In the presidential race, the question will be if any the Democrats in the 2020 field can survive in the South in a binary match-up against Trump and his faithful followers.

Virginia is probably a lock for the Democrats, and Florida and North Carolina are always in play. The wild cards will be Georgia and Texas, where the heavy urban-suburban Democratic vote seen in 2018 and 2019 could make things interesting if it materializes again in 2020. (Trump carried Georgia by just 5 points in 2016; the margin was 9 points in Texas.)

However, it should be noted that if either Beshear or Edwards were in the presidential race, they would be far and away the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. So could a presidential candidate who is highly likely to be substantially to their left duplicate the success they had locally in 2019, particularly in states where the president remains more popular than he does nationally?

Mmmm … don’t bet the rent.

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Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards defeats Republican Eddie Rispone

Edwards’s victory is a blow to Republicans and President Donald Trump after earlier GOP loss in Kentucky

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

NEW ORLEANS (CFP) — Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards has narrowly won re-election to a second term, defeating Republican Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.

The win by Edwards in Saturday’s runoff gives Democrats victories in two out of three Southern governor’s races this year, despite fervent interventions in all three races by President Donald Trump in states he carried handily in 2016.

Governor John Bel Edwards speaks to supporters in New Orleans after winning second term (WWL-TV via YouTube)

Edwards took 51 percent of the vote in the runoff to 49 percent to Rispone, one of Louisiana’s wealthiest businessmen who was making his first bid for political office.

“How sweet it is,” Edwards said in his victory speech to supporters at a New Orleans hotel. “You didn’t just vote for me. You voted for four more years of putting Louisiana first.”

Edwards is the first Democrat to win a second term as Louisiana’s chief executive since Edwin Edwards (no relation) won re-election in 1975.

In the other statewide office on the ballot Saturday, Republican incumbent Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin easily defeated Democrat Gwen Collins-Greenup by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

During the first round of voting in October, Edwards took 47 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Rispone, who had tried to close the gap by unifying the Republican vote, which he had split with the third place finisher, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

Trump — who carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016 — visited the state three times during the campaign, most recently on Thursday night when he implored a rally in Bossier City that “you’ve gotta give me a big win” by electing Rispone.

Edwards responded to Trump’s involvement in the race with a classic Southern putdown in his victory speech.

“And as for the president — God bless his heart,” Edwards said. “If this campaign has taught us anything, it’s that the partisan forces in Washington, D.C. are not strong enough to break through the bonds that we share as Louisianans.”

Rispone led most of the night as the votes were counted, but Edwards caught and passed him as the vote came in from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport, where the governor rolled up large margins of victory — more than 90 percent in Orleans Parish.

Edwards, 53, is one of just three Democratic governors in the South, along with North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Virginia’s Ralph Northam. But unlike Northam and Cooper, Edwards has positioned himself as a conservative Democrat who opposes legal abortion and gun control, both of which played well in Louisiana.

As a result, national Democrats, including the large crop of 2020 White House contenders, have conspicuously avoided campaigning on his behalf, although former President Barack Obama did make a robocall for the governor in the first round of the primary.

Louisiana’s governor’s race is the last contest on the 2019 election calendar and comes less than two weeks after Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, was defeated for re-election by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, despite Trump campaigning on Bevin’s behalf.

Republicans had more success in Mississippi, where Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves won the governorship over Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.

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