Whoever wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the Kentucky governor’s race this fall will head into a competitive contest in a deep red state: Matt Bevin, the current Republican governor, is one of the most unpopular governors in the nation — and one of President Trump’s most active supporters.
Four Democrats are on the ballot in the primary election: Rocky Adkins, a state representative; Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general and the son of Kentucky’s last Democratic governor, Steve Beshear; Adam Edelen, a former state auditor; and Geoff Young, an activist.
The gubernatorial election in November will likely draw national attention. Trump is expected to campaign hard for Bevin, who’s been a key ally of his administration, meeting frequently with Trump officials at the White House and in his home state. Sixty-two percent of Kentucky voters voted for Trump in 2016. A loss for Bevin the year before Trump himself is up for reelection would be embarrassing for the president. For Democrats, it would be a chance to score a statewide win in a state that has generally trended Republican.
Meanwhile, there are also big policy issues at stake. 1.2 million people get their health insurance through Medicaid in Kentucky, which expanded the program through the Affordable Care Act, but Bevin has sought to roll back coverage through work requirements and new monthly premiums. Kentucky’s pension system is one of the worst-funded in the nation, according to the Courier-Journal, and the state is now $43 million in debt. The opioid crisis has hit the state hard.
Bevin will most likely tout his friendship with Trump, who has an approval rate of 56 percent in the state, to try to win in November. But it remains to be seen if Trump’s name alone will be enough for him to win.
Matt Bevin’s education policies have helped make him the most unpopular governor in the country
Bevin won Kentucky’s governorship in 2015 with 53 percent of the vote after Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, was term-limited. A firebrand conservative who unsuccessfully challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from the right in 2014’s primary elections, Bevin swept to a surprise win after a campaign where he emphasized his outsider credentials.
But Bevin has struggled in office, posting the lowest approval ratings — 33 percent, according to Morning Consult — in the country.
One of the most polarizing issues of Bevin’s term has been education: Since last year, the governor’s attempt to cut back on pension benefits for teachers and funding for public education has sparked waves of protests from teachers. Earlier this year, teachers called in sick and closed down schools in protest of Bevin’s budget proposal.
It is illegal for state employees to go on strike in Kentucky. In an effort to penalize teachers who attended these rallies, Bevin subpoenaed the names of teachers who have used their sick days — and won in a court case that has put thousands of teachers at risk of being fined.
Bevin was also under fire for his inflammatory remarks toward teachers during these sickouts.
“One thing you almost didn’t hear anything about while we had people pretending to be sick when they weren’t sick and leaving kids unattended to or in situations that they should not have been in — a little girl was shot, 7 years old, by another kid,” he said during a speech in April.
Although he did not elaborate which incident he was pointing to, the Courier-Journal reported that he was most likely referring to a case from March 12, where a 7-year-old girl was accidentally shot in the face by her 11-year-old brother at three in the afternoon, past the school dismissal time of 2:20 pm. (The girl survived the gunshot and has been released from the hospital.)
The governor had made similar remarks in 2018, saying that children were exposed to sexual assault because teachers were out on the street and closing down schools. He apologized after intense backlash.
Bevin also faced criticism for saying on a radio show, amid a nationwide measles epidemic, that he doesn’t support the state’s mandatory chicken pox vaccine.
Bevin has sought to cut Medicaid coverage in Kentucky, where the health insurance program for low-income Americans covers 1.2 million people. The governor is attempting to add work requirements on Medicaid, although the federal court has shut down his proposals twice. He has also threatened to roll back Kentucky’s expansion of Medicaid entirely if he doesn’t get work requirements — which would lead to about 400,000 people covered by the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare losing their coverage.
Bevin’s campaign could not be reached for comment.
The Democratic primary’s big question: Who is best to beat Bevin?
The three Democratic frontrunners — Andy Beshear, Adam Edelen, and Rocky Adkins — all advertise themselves as the candidate to beat Bevin. There have been no independent polls conducted ahead of Tuesday’s vote, although Beshear has generally been seen as having the lead.
Beshear, who was elected attorney general in 2015, has sued Bevin multiple times over pension reforms, sickout subpoenas, and funding for public education. Beshear is hoping that his opposition against Bevin will be enough to attract Republican voters, who are sick of the current governor.
“This is a race about right versus wrong and not right versus left,” Beshear told Vox.
He’s also taken aggressive steps against Kentucky’s opioid crisis. In 2017, the state had the fourth-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As attorney general, Beshear sued nine companies for contributing to the opioid epidemic — including Walgreens and Johnson & Johnson. (The lawsuit has become a source of conflict between Beshear and Bevin: Beshear contracted with private law firms to pursue the case, something Bevin has criticized.)
Beshear also has family history on his side: His father, Steve Beshear, also a Democrat, served two terms as governor before Bevin was elected and was popular for his moderate views.
Adam Edelen, the former state auditor who is now a solar-energy entrepreneur, has emphasized building a “modern Kentucky.” In a state that has long thrived off its coal industry, Edelen said he wants to invest in renewable energy, which would create thousands of new jobs. He already has experience in the field, as his company is developing one of the country’s largest solar power projects atop an old coal mine in Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s not enough just to oppose [Bevin], though certainly we must,” Edelen told Vox. “We’ve got to paint a more compelling vision for the future in which regular Kentuckians can see themselves included.”
Edelen is also promising to deliver the internet to every Kentuckian. The state has failed to deliver on KentuckyWired, a bipartisan initiative created in 2013 to improve broadband connectivity throughout the state.
“We live in a state where the most reliable provider of WiFi in rural Kentucky is McDonald’s,” Edelen told Vox.
Rocky Adkins, the minority floor leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, has stood out by advertising himself as the candidate that can win votes from rural Kentucky, where Democrats have slowly been losing support, because he has grown up in and represents rural Kentucky. Adkins added he is best fit to talk about the downturn of the coal industry because he himself was an employee of coal company Addington Enterprises before he was laid off in the early 2000s.
Adkins is also the only leading Democratic candidate who is in favor of limiting abortion. Earlier this year, he voted for a bill that would ban abortions after the first six weeks of pregnancy — although a federal judge has blocked the bill indefinitely. During a primary debate last month, Adkins defended his stance, saying that it reflects the values of his rural constituents: “I am pro-life and you express the views of your constituents that you represent in the legislature through your votes,” he said. In contrast, Beshear was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice America on Monday.
Will the general election be a referendum on Trump?
Kentucky voted for President Trump by 62.5 percent, compared to 32.7 percent voting for Clinton, in 2016. As of April, the president has a 56 percent approval rating in the state, which is substantially higher than the national rating of about 39 percent, according to Morning Consult.
Bevin, a close ally of Trump, will be using Trump’s popularity to his advantage, Kentucky-based Republican strategist Scott Jennings said. A “winning formula” for most Kentucky races are tying state Democrats with the more liberal national party while portraying the Republicans as an extension of Trump, Jennings said.
Bevin has already begun name-dropping Trump in his campaign. His first TV ad, which debuted last week, featured pictures of the two together with a voiceover from Bevin: “President Trump is taking America to new heights — but it hasn’t been easy. People are afraid of change. But I’m not. Neither is the president. And together our changes are working.”
“A great way for Bevin to nationalize the race is just to say, ‘What Trump’s done nationally, I’ve done at the state level. And together, you can see the results are very positive,’” Jennings said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are taking the opposite route: trying to make the race a referendum against Bevin and the people of Kentucky — not Trump.
“At the end of the day, this race is not about what’s going on in the White House,” Beshear told Vox. “It’s about what’s going on in the homes of every single Kentucky family.”
Even if a Democrat wins the governor’s race in Kentucky in November, it doesn’t mean the state will turn blue or that Trump is necessarily in trouble in 2020. But with Trump likely to campaign to boost Bevin’s appeal, it will still be seen as a test of the president’s own popularity ahead of his reelection race in 18 months.