Politics

Tea Party-Aligned Kentucky Gov May End 95-Year Democratic Reign

Matt Bevin could be the GOP's key to a legislative majority in state House

A county sheriff hands Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin a fake subpoena from Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear during his speech at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

FANCY FARM, Ky. – Matt Bevin was delivering a speech here Saturday when a uniformed sheriff tapped the governor on the shoulder, interrupted him, and placed a letter in his hand.

“I think I’ve just been served,” said Bevin, who was on stage at the annual St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic near the state’s western tip. “Let me look at this.”

He opened the letter and started laughing. “Seriously, I just got sued by the attorney general.”

The Kentucky Republican was making a joke, of course, about Democratic Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear. Just nine months ago, Bevin succeeded Andy’s father, Steve, to become governor of Kentucky — a role nobody in Kentucky politics thought he would ever hold as recently as the last midterm election.

Then, he was just a tea party-aligned conservative who lost miserably to Mitch McConnell in a GOP primary. Now, he’s a popular incumbent governor (according to at least one poll) with a chance to lead Republicans to a legislative majority this fall, ending nearly a hundred years of Democratic control of the state House.

And on Saturday, he was taking a de facto victory lap, speaking for the first time as an elected official at this a one-of-a-kind event that resembles a celebrity roast as much as a political rally. Politicians for both parties rip into their partisan opponents before hundreds of vocal supporters, who on this day were crowded underneath the open-air pavilion while a storm passed the heavily rural region.

Even Bevin’s old rival, the Senate majority leader himself, was on board. Bevin sat next to McConnell on stage, and the two men applauded each other’s speeches as they spoke.

“It has literally been 95 years of unfettered control of one certain liberal ideology controlling appropriations process,” Bevin said, speaking loudly over the boisterous crowd. “… I think it’s time for a change in leadership in Frankfort.”

Bevin was never a favorite to become Kentucky’s next governor. In the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary last year, he ran against two better-known candidates with more support from the party establishment. Bevin won narrowly in that race, coming in first despite not even winning 33-percent of the vote in a four-man race.

He beat his nearest opponent, James Comer, by fewer than a hundred votes. (Comer, who is running for Congress in the state’s 1st Congressional District, also attended Fancy Farm.)

Bevin wasn’t a lock to win the general election, either, against Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. But the state’s conservative shift in recent years, accelerate by President Obama’s time in office, proved an important ally, and Bevin won a surprisingly easy victory by nearly 10 points.

It capped what Scott Jennings, a political strategist in the state and longtime McConnell loyalist, called an “amazing journey.”

“We have a really strong political history of our elected officials being a model of perseverance,” the strategist said. “And I think Matt Bevin is the prime example of it today.”

Jennings’s firm released a poll this week showing Bevin’s approval rating at 52 percent. Other relatively recent surveys have told a much different story: Morning Consult in May released a survey that found his approval rating at only 33 percent.

The governor certainly had the better of the crowd Saturday. Republicans appeared more numerous in both the audience and on stage, where GOP leaders constantly poked fun at the absence of Democratic elected officials like Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

McConnell took a moment during his own speech to tout his decision to block President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

"One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, 'Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.'"

Bevin's had setbacks in office. Just this past March, Kentucky Democrats won three of four state House races to retain control of the legislative body until at least November.

Democrats in Kentucky don’t do much to hide their disdain for Bevin. At an event Friday morning in Paducah, Kentucky, Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo repeatedly called Bevin a “pathological liar,” describing him as someone so deeply misguided that he could pass a lie-detector test.

“He’s a dangerous person, let me tell you,” Stumbo said.

Democrats have a number of grievances with Bevin, including his decision to remove the name of Steve Beshear’s wife, Jane Beshear, from the Capitol Education Complex near the state Capitol.

But they also think that if Republicans retake the state House, Bevin will push for Kentucky to adopt laws meant to limit the influence of the labor movement, even making it a right-to-work state.

Bevin left the stage Saturday encouraging his allies to focus on winning state House races.

“Flip the House,” he said, repeating himself twice.

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