Shortly before Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin won his first term four years ago, he made an elaborate show of contrition to onetime rival and fellow Republican Mitch McConnell, showing a satirical video at a GOP dinner in which Bevin appeared to get a McConnell-themed tattoo.
Now Bevin is in the homestretch of a bitter reelection battle — against the state’s Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear — that is seen as a curtain raiser to McConnell’s own 2020 campaign for a seventh Senate term. And the Senate majority leader has been returning the love, working behind the scenes to boost his erstwhile antagonist, according to sources familiar with the race.
While it is by no means the first time that McConnell, a political power broker in Kentucky, has supported a candidate in his home state, his work on Bevin’s behalf is notable after the mutual displays of dislike that characterized their 2014 race. McConnell trounced Bevin by 25 points in a primary campaign rife with personal attacks from both sides, and was slow to support him the next year after Bevin emerged as the GOP gubernatorial nominee.
This time, McConnell has talked up Bevin’s race at state party functions. He urged Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to send money and support Bevin’s way. And he has talked to President Donald Trump about the race, according to several sources.
“Leader McConnell and our campaign have been focused on making sure that Governor Bevin, [state attorney general nominee] Daniel Cameron and the rest of the Republican ticket are successful on election night,” McConnell’s campaign manager Kevin Golden said.
All eyes on Kentucky
McConnell’s about-face is among the many signals of the importance that state and national leaders from both parties have placed on Tuesday’s election in Kentucky.
It is one of three states with gubernatorial races next month and could be a significant barometer of Democratic strength that a challenger running statewide in a red state could tap into next year, when McConnell will likely face retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath, though other prominent Democrats are reportedly considering bids.
“It’s a unified front, from Trump to McConnell to Bevin,” said Scott Jennings, a Louisville-based Republican adviser, who served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush. “They are working together, they are there for each other. And it strikes me that McConnell knows that Bevin winning is good for him.”
Trump — who has remained popular in the state since he won it by 30 points in 2016 — is planning a rally on Bevin’s behalf Monday night. Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to campaign in the state on Friday.
“Most Kentuckians have made up their minds about Bevin, and most don’t like him,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “But Bevin is counting on Trump being able to get people off their butts and go to the polls because Trump wants them to.”
On the Democratic side, McGrath has delayed in-state fundraising to avoid interfering with Beshear. She has also hosted fundraisers and knocked on doors on his behalf, according to her campaign.
“We have done a lot to help Andy win this race,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “We are very, very hopeful that he wins.”
Democrats say the race could also determine who gets to vote in 2020 because Beshear has pledged to automatically restore voting rights to felons convicted of nonviolent offenses who have completed their sentences. The move would mirror an executive order signed by his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, that Bevin reversed in his first weeks in office.
Kentucky is on the tail end of a slow progression into a deeply red state. About half its voters are still registered as Democrats, but GOP registrations have been growing and Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Only one member of its U.S. House delegation — Rep. John Yarmuth — is a Democrat.
A small opening
But Bevin ranks among the country’s most unpopular governors. He won his primary in May with just 52 percent of the vote. He had a bitter fight with public school teachers, a powerful voting bloc, and a public feud with his own lieutenant governor, who was dropped from the ticket. Those factors have made the race unexpectedly close. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this month had Bevin and Beshear tied at 46 percent.
Bevin has attempted to overcome those obstacles by playing up his close relationship with Trump. If the strategy works for him, Republicans say, it would bode well for McConnell next year, when the race will be even more nationalized.
Democrats say that if Beshear wins — or even manages to come close — it will show that the state could be in play in a national election, and it will bring even more money from across the country into the Senate race.
“The fact that so many people are so tuned into the governor’s race is a good sign,” said Ryan Aquilina, executive director of the Ditch Mitch Fund, a political action committee that supports McGrath. “It shows that people are aware of the policies and can digest information that is a lot more than partisanship.”
But even Democrats admit McConnell, who has a history of beating challengers from both sides of the aisle, will be a more formidable opponent than Bevin. In his last race, in 2014, he beat the highly touted Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in a landslide. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Solid Republican.
Still, Democrats say McConnell faces a steeper climb this time because, as majority leader, he is seen as more of a national figure than a Kentucky politician.
McGrath has attempted to capitalize on that image, saying in her campaign launch video that McConnell had helped to “turn Washington into something we all despise.” The message resonated in other parts of the country. Even without actively fundraising in Kentucky, and after an early stumble on a question about whether she would have voted to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, McGrath raised $10.7 million in the last fundraising quarter, more than several presidential candidates.
Republicans say there is no comparison between running for governor this year and senator next year, as long as McConnell stays on Trump’s good side. They expect that Trump at the top of the ticket will draw out Republicans who might stay home for a governor’s race.
And it is easier for a minority party to win a state-centered campaign than a federal race, when voters tend to be focused on hot-button national issues.
“I have a hard time believing that a bunch of people will vote for Trump, and then vote for a federal candidate who is diametrically opposed to Trump,” Jennings said. “I just don’t understand where you expect to find that kind of ticket-splitters.”