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Candidates for Kentucky governor address crowd of partisans amid dueling chants of “Four More Years” and “Throw Him Out”
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
FANCY FARM, Kentucky (CFP) — Kentucky’s August political ritual, the Fancy Farm picnic, is known for tasty barbecue, hot weather and barbed comments coming from politicians on the stage.
But the nastiness went into overdrive Saturday amid highly contentious governor’s race between Republican Governor Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, with both men — and their supporters — making it abundantly clear just how much they do not like each other.
The only moment of unity came when Bevin ended his remarks by asking the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Democrats obliged — and then went right back to heckling the commonwealth’s controversial chief executive with chants of “Throw Him Out.”
Republicans on the other side of the picnic pavilion responded with “Four More Years” and “Daddy’s Boy” — a reference to the fact that Beshear’s father, Steve, served as governor before Bevin.
Note: Videos of Bevin, Beshear at Fancy Farm follow this story.
Beshear’s campaign — buoyed by teachers, state employees and other groups angered during Bevin’s tenure — turned out more signs and a somewhat larger crowd. Republicans, however, accused Democrats of busing in non-Kentuckians from across the Ohio River in Illinois and Indiana to bolster their ranks.
“Andy Beshear may have won the sign battle today, but you will lose the war in November,” promised State Rep. Richard Heath, a local GOP legislator who warmed up the crowd for Bevin.
Among the Democrats’ signs was a giant cutout of the head of Republican Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton, whom Bevin tossed from his ticket and with whom his administration touched off an ugly feud by firing members of her staff.
The Fancy Farm picnic, a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church, draws thousands of partisans from across Kentucky to the town of 500 on the far western side of the state. The church has hosted the event on the first Saturday in August every year since 1880, and it has become a ritual for ambitious politicians across the commonwealth
As Bevin has throughout the campaign, he sought to use national political issues as a wedge with the conservative Kentucky electorate, beginning his remarks by noting that the picnic raises money for a Catholic church and then displaying a poster from a recent Beshear fundraiser hosted by the owner of the state’s last remaining abortion clinic in Louisville.
“The only collusion that has ever happened in Kentucky is the collusion between this attorney general and the abortion industry,” said Bevin, who criticized Beshear — who supports legal abortion — for refusing to defend in court abortion restrictions passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.
The governor said the issue to be decided by voters in the November election is “which side are you on?”
“This should not be a difficult decision. It’s a function of whether you stand for America and American principles or whether you stand for socialism,” the governor said. “Do you stand with Donald Trump as the president of America, or do you stand with The Squad?,” a reference to four far-left Democratic congresswomen who have drawn Trump’s Twitter ire.
Beshear then followed Bevin to the stage to continue the strategy he has pursued throughout the campaign — to make the election about Bevin and his tenure in Frankfort, rather than Trump or national hot-button issues. He offered no response at all to the governor’s digs on the abortion issue.
Beshshear began by thanking Bevin “for finally showing up” to face him and then adding, “I guess we’ve got to thank the Koch brothers, too, for letting him,” a reference to the conservative mega-donors who have supported the governor.
“I guess they didn’t tell him Fancy Farm wasn’t one of their fancy resorts,” Beshear said.
Beshear called Bevin “reckless and erratic” and said “he never takes responsibility” for his decisions. He called the governor “more show pony than work horse” and said he had “left us a lot of manure.”
“The only thing we’re shoveling out of Frankfort this fall is you,” he said, as Bevin looked on impassively.
Beshear said the race comes down to four “critical” issues — fixing the financial problems in the state’s pension system, supporting public education, creating well-paying jobs and protecting health care. “And on every single one of them, Matt Bevin is wrong,” he said.
The attorney general also didn’t pass up the possibility to remind the crowd about what has become the most controversial moment of Bevin’s tenure as governor, in April 2018, when he claimed “somewhere in Kentucky” a student had been sexually assaulted or “ingested poison” because schools closed when teachers called in sick to protest pension changes at the Capitol.
“Matt Bevin thinks our teachers are ignorant thugs. I think you are amazing and selfless,” Beshear said, adding that if he is elected, teachers “will always be respected, you will never be locked out of your Capitol, and you will always have a seat at the table.”
The fall race in Kentucky will be a test of whether Trump’s popularity in Kentucky, which he won by 30 points in 2016, will be enough to save Bevin, who was ranked as the nation’s most unpopular governor in a recent Morning Consult poll. In Kentucky, 55 percent approve of Trump’s job performance; by contrast, 52 percent of state voters disapprove of Bevin’s performance, including 37 percent of Republicans.
Trump is expected to travel to Kentucky in the fall to campaign with Bevin, who attended the president’s rally last week in Cincinnati, just over the Ohio River.
Kentucky is one of three Southern states electing governors in 2019, along with Mississippi and Louisiana.
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Bevin’s remarks at Fancy Farm:
Beshear’s remarks at Fancy Farm:
Can Governor Matt Bevin overcome his unpopularity by casting fall contest as conservative vs. liberal?
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Consider if you will a leader who is unapologetic, unconventional and unleashed. Who is in office not because of, but in spite of, the political class and cares little for its opinions.
A man whose opponents are reduced to sputtering fits of rage at the mere mention of his name. Who plays happily to his base, unperturbed by tepid approval ratings.
That, of course, describes Donald Trump, but it also describes the central player in the South’s hottest governor’s race in 2019 — which could very well be the first canary in the coal mine telling us how Trump himself might fare in 2020.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin is running for re-election after four turbulent years in Frankfort, in which he sparred with his fellow Republicans in the legislature, accused teachers of endangering students by leaving their classrooms to protest changes in their pensions, and lamented that Americans had become “soft” after school districts canceled classes during a subfreezing cold snap.
He has even endured the worst indignity that can befall a Kentucky politician — being booed lustily by the crowd on Derby Day.
In November, Bevin will face Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of his predecessor, who over the past four years has made it his personal mission to sue Bevin — over pension reform, over higher education cuts and, most recently, over subpoenas issued to teachers who called in sick to protest at the Capitol.
The blood here is bad. Bevin went after Beshear’s mother, Kentucky’s former first lady, removing her from a commission that oversees a state horse park and taking her name off of a state-run visitor’s center.
Beshear likes to tell voters that the bombastic Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire, just wasn’t raised right, a rather serious insult down South.
A preview of both camps’ general election strategies was full display on the night of May’s primary. Beshear called Bevin a bully and said the election would be about “right versus wrong.” Bevin called Beshear a liberal and said the election would be about right versus left.
The governor is betting that a binary choice between himself and a “liberal” candidate will work to his advantage in Kentucky, just as Trump is painting his re-election as a binary choice between him and the “socialists” he says are running amok in the Democratic Party.
The question will be whether, when it comes time for voters to render a verdict, the pull of that binary choice will be stronger than the incumbents’ personal unpopularity (which is, arguably, how Trump became president in the first place).
In a sense, Bevin was Trump before Trump was Trump. His came on the political scene in 2014 with a kamikaze mission to unseat U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary with Tea Party support. In 2015, he won the GOP primary for governor by less than 100 votes after his two better-known rivals savaged each other. He won the general election by opposing same-sex marriage and tying his Democratic opponent to Barack Obama.
But as controversies have mounted, his fortunes have fallen. When Morning Consult looked at gubernatorial approval ratings in April, Bevin came in dead last, at just 33 percent and nearly 20 points under water.
Being tagged as America’s most unpopular governor is certainly no badge of honor when running for re-election, although Bevin, characteristically, insists he pays no attention to such things.
The governor’s job approval is about 10 points lower than Trump’s, and, while the president retains strong support among Republicans, Bevin could only manage to win 52 percent in May’s GOP primary, against three little-known opponents.
However, if the strategy of presenting a binary choice against a liberal is going to work anywhere, it should work in Kentucky, home to many rural, white, religious voters who propelled Trump to a whopping 40-point win in 2016.
Abortion is likely to be the key fault line in Bevin’s quest to paint Beshear as too liberal. Bevin opposes legal abortion; Beshear supports it and has refused to defend abortion restrictions passed by the legislature in court.
Bevin has also, not surprisingly, wrapped himself firmly in Trump’s aura. The president is featured prominently in his campaign ads and is expected to travel to the Bluegrass this fall to campaign for him.
A Bevin victory, despite weak poll numbers and ceaseless controversy, would be a boon for the binary choice strategy and a testament to Trump’s enduring popularity among his supporters.
A Bevin defeat could show the limits of trying to overcome marked unpopularity through ideological contrast. While that won’t have implications for 2020 in places such as Kentucky where Trump is popular, it could illustrate the limits of a contrast strategy in battleground states he needs to win.
No matter how Bevin vs. Beshear 2019 turns out, it will be loud, expensive and mean — just the thing to get us ready for Trump vs. Democrats 2020.