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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.”
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.
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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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.
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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Democrat Andy Beshear’s 5,200-vote lead stands up after review
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
FRANKFORT, Kentucky (CFP) — Republican Governor Matt Bevin has conceded defeat in the Kentucky governor’s race after a recanvass of the November 5 vote did not reverse Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear’s 5,200-vote lead.
“We’re going to have a change in the governorship based on the vote of the people,” Bevin said at a November 14 news conference after the results of the recanvass came in. “I wish Attorney General Beshear well as he transitions to his next role in this state. It’s a big responsibility.”
He also said “every single facet of our administration that is desired is ready, willing and able … to help in this transition process.”
Bevin had refused to concede on election night, citing unspecified “irregularities” in the election. He asked for a recanvass, in which elections officials in the state’s 120 counties rechecked the accuracy of vote totals that had been reported.
The recanvass showed almost no change in the results in initially reported, which showed Beshear beating Bevin by 5,189 votes out of more than 1.4 million cast.
Ballots were not recounted; the state uses a system where paper ballots are marked and scanned by machines.
Watch Governor Matt Bevin’s concession at end of this story.
Beshear reacted to Bevin’s decision not to further contest the election on Twitter: “It’s official – thank you Kentucky. @GovMattBevin and his team have already begun a smooth transition. It’s time to get to work!”
Bevin’s concession culminates four tumultuous years in Frankfort that featured a bitter feud with public school teachers opposed to the governor’s attempts to fix holes in the state’s pension system. He also quarreled with fellow Republicans in the legislature and tossed his own lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, from his re-election ticket; members of his staff then tried to fire Hampton’s staff out from under her.
But Bevin’s most significant battle was against Beshear, who used the attorney generalship to haul the governor into court at least eight times, including a lawsuit that torpedoed a GOP-backed pension reform plan. The race between the two men became acrimonious, with Beshear accusing Bevin of being a bully and Bevin dismissing Beshear as a leftist ideologue.
Bevin wrapped himself in the mantle of President Donald Trump, who came to rally the Republican faithful in Lexington on the night before the election. But even Trump’s coattails — in a state he carried by 30 points in 2016 — couldn’t save a governor who topped the list of the nation’s most unpopular governors through much of his term.
Beshear, 41, who takes office December 10, will be following in the footsteps of his father, Steve Beshear, who served as governor from 2007 until 2015.
His lieutenant governor running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, an public school assistant principal and basketball coach, will take office at the same time. She has announced that she is expecting a child in February.
Beshear and Coleman will be the lone Democrats among statewide elected officials in Kentucky; Republicans swept the remaining five posts, including Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron, a protegé and former aide to the state’s senior Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be the first Republican to hold that office in 71 years.
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Beshear won despite President Donald Trump going all in for Bevin
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear has defeated Kentucky’s Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who could not overcome his personal unpopularity to hang on to his job despite vocal support from President Donald Trump and a Republican wave further down the ballot.
Beshear took 49.2 percent in the November 5 vote to 48.9 percent for Bevin, who saw his approval ratings tank after a tumultuous four years in Frankfort during which he sparred with his fellow Republicans in the legislature, fought with his own lieutenant governor, and heaped criticism on public school teachers.
However, Bevin, trailing by 4,700 votes, refused to concede, telling his supporters that “we know for a fact that there have been more than a few irregularities” in the election.
The governor did not give specifics, saying only that the nature of the irregularities “will be determined according to law that’s well established.”
Beshear, speaking to jubilant supporters at a victory celebration in Louisville, said “my expectation is that [Bevin] will honor the election that was held tonight, that he will help us make this transition.”
The hotly contested governor’s race sparked a voter turnout more than 400,000 higher than in the last governor’s race in 2015, with Beshear crushing Bevin by 2-to-1 margins in the urban centers of Louisville and Lexington.
Republicans got better news in the race to succeed Beshear as attorney general, as Daniel Cameron, a protegé and former aide to the state’s senior Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, won the post, marking the first time in 76 years that it has gone to a Republican.
Despite losing the governorship, GOP candidates swept the rest of the statewide offices on the ballot Tuesday. Beshear will also have to work with large Republican majorities in the legislature to push through his agenda.
Beshear, 41, will now follow in the footsteps of his father, Steve, who served as governor from 2010 to 2016.
In his victory speech, Beshear said the result showed “that our values and how we treat each other is still more important than our party, that what unites us as Kentuckians is still stronger than any national divisions.”
“Tonight, I think we showed this country that in Kentucky, we can disagree with each other while still respecting one another,” Beshear said.
The gubernatorial contest became a bitter grudge match between Bevin and Beshear, who had sued the governor repeatedly over the past four years as attorney general.
Beshear had portrayed Bevin as a bully, particularly for his critical comments about public school teachers who have been protesting Republican-backed pension reform plans. To emphasize the point, he selected a public school teacher, Jacqueline Coleman, as his running mate for lieutenant governor, and he saluted teachers in his election night speech.
“Your courage to stand up and fight against all the bullying and name calling helped galvanize our entire state,” Beshear said. “This is your victory. From now on, the doors of your State Capitol will always be open.”
Bevin had painted Beshear as a far-left liberal and wrapped himself firmly in the mantle of Trump, who carried the Bluegrass State by 30 points in 2016.
Trump was featured prominently in Bevin’s ads, and he dropped into Lexington on the night before the election to hold a rally with the governor in which he urged supporters to come out for Bevin because “if you lose, it sends a really bad message … You can’t let that happen to me.”
The president offered no immediate reaction on Twitter to the results in the governor’s race, although he did tweet congratulations to Cameron for his victory in the attorney general’s contest.
Bevin, like Trump, did well in rural parts of the state. However, Beshear rolled up a margin of more than 130,000 votes in Louisville and Lexington and also won two of the three counties in suburban Cincinnati along with Frankfort and Bowling Green.
In the attorney general’s race, Cameron ran well ahead of Bevin to defeat Democrat Greg Stumbo in by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent. Stumbo served as attorney general from 2004 to 2008.
Cameron, making his first bid for political office, is also the first African American to win a statewide race in Kentucky in his own right. (Current Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton was elected on a ticket with Bevin in 2015; he bounced her from his re-election ticket earlier this year.)
A Republican had not been elected attorney general since 1943, a string of 15 consecutive defeats which Cameron finally ended.
Republican incumbents swept other statewide races for auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner.
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Voters in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia will cast ballots in off-year elections for state offices
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Voters in three Southern states will troop to the polls Tuesday to decide their state’s balance of power and give a first indication of how the current fractious state of American politics might play out in the 2020 election.
In Kentucky and Mississippi, Democratic candidates have a shot at wresting governorships out of GOP hands. In Virginia, Democrats will be trying to complete a takeover of state government by gaining the handful of seats they need to flip both houses of the legislature — which would give them unfettered power to draw political maps after the 2020 census.
Towering over all of these races is President Donald Trump, who has put his personal political prestige on the line by going all in for Republican candidates in Kentucky and Mississippi. Although Trump is not in any trouble in either state in 2020, Democrats will no doubt crow if Trump proves unable to carry his preferred candidates over the line.
In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin is seeking re-election after a tumultuous four years in Frankfort that have left him among the nation’s least popular chief executives. He is being challenged by his archenemy, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who has repeatedly sued the governor and now hopes to replace him.
Bevin has tried to counter his low approval ratings by wrapping himself in the Trump mantle and painting Beshear as a far-left liberal, particularly on the issue of abortion. Bevin opposes legal abortion, which Beshear supports.
Beshear has countered by painting Bevin as a bully, particularly in his critical comments about public school teachers who have been protesting Republican-backed pension reform plans.
The other race of note in Kentucky is the contest to replace Beshear as attorney general between Republican Daniel Cameron, a protegé of Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Democrat Greg Stumbo, who held the office from 2004 to 2008.
Although Republicans have become dominant in Kentucky politics in recent decades, the last time a Republican won a race for attorney general was 1943 — a streak of 15 consecutive wins that Cameron hopes to snap.
Cameron would also be the first African American to win a statewide race in Kentucky in his own right. (Current Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton was elected on a ticket with Bevin in 2015; he bounced her from his re-election ticket earlier this year.)
In Mississippi, two men who have served alongside each other in statewide office for the past 16 years, Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, are facing off in the governor’s race.
Democrats, who haven’t won a governor’s race in the Magnolia State since 1999, are hoping that Hood — running to the right of national party on contentious social issues such as abortion and gun control — can break through against Reeves, who had to fight his way through a contentious GOP primary and runoff.
However, a wrinkle in Mississippi law may prove Hood’s undoing — to win, a candidate not only has to win the most votes on Tuesday but must also carry a majority of state House districts. If that threshold isn’t meant, the next governor will be selected by the Republican-controlled legislature, which will almost certainly give the job to Reeves.
The threshold requirement — implemented during the era of Jim Crow to prevent black candidates from winning statewide offices — is currently being challenged in federal court, a suit that will take on new resonance if Hood wins the most votes but doesn’t carry enough districts.
In Virginia, statewide offices aren’t on the ballot, but all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats are up for grabs.
Currently, Republicans hold a narrow 21-19 in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the House, which means a net shift of two seats in either house could switch it to Democratic control.
Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years, and two years ago, Democrats made huge gains to nearly take control of the House while also sweeping statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Democrats haven’t controlled the House since 1997 or the Senate since 2014. Should they take both chambers Tuesday, it will be the first time since 1993 that Democrats have controlled the legislature and the governorship, which will allow them to redraw legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census.
Virginia’s congressional delegation currently has seven Democrats and four Republicans, after Democrats flipped three GOP-held seats in 2018. Controlling reapportionment would allow Democrats to protect those gains by drawing more favorable maps, as well as drawing new maps to cement their control of the legislature.