With only two weeks until the May 21 primary, this may be the quietest — and hardest to handicap — governor’s race I can recall.
Despite all his verbal and intra-party miscues which according to one poll has made Matt Bevin the most unpopular governor in the country; despite the ineluctable Republican tide which has been sweeping Kentucky for 25 years; despite what many might consider a weak and underfinanced field of Democratic challengers... there are signs Bevin could have trouble winning re-election.
For goodness sake, Bevin was booed at the trophy presentation at last week’s Kentucky Derby. I realize the crowd of more than 160,000 was probably surly from the disqualification of the horse who crossed the finish line first and another very wet Derby. But booing the Kentucky Governor as he presents the winner’s trophy at the Derby?
One of Bevin’s three GOP primary opponents seems serious about the race. Retired pharmacist and state lawmaker Robert Goforth of East Bernstadt has put almost as much of his money into the race as Bevin has. He’s been running some broadcast ads and traveling the state speaking to Republican voters. He doesn’t differ much on issues from Bevin but Goforth makes sure his audiences know the two differ in style and tone.
I haven’t been able to get on the ground in either place, but friends keep telling me Goforth is going to surprise in the Fifth District and in the Fourth outside of Cincinnati, both places one would expect an incumbent Republican governor might do well in a re-election bid. I continue to hear of Republicans who say they don’t like Bevin and wish for a Republican alternative.
Of course four years ago, the landscape was reversed. Jack Conway had the Democratic nomination sewed up but couldn’t excite or inspire his troops. Meanwhile, in a four-person Republican race, Bevin snuck past Hal Heiner and James Comer as they attacked each other viciously. Bevin won by all of 83 votes.
Bevin defeated Conway by 10 points, claiming it represented a mandate. But he neglects to say — or fails to understand — he won in a 30 percent turnout race, meaning he captured the actual support of less than 20 percent of Kentucky voters. And I’m hearing this year’s primary vote might be under 20 percent altogether.
That’s probably the kind of race Democrat Rocky Adkins is hoping for as Andy Beshear and Adam Edelen attack each other, hoping to find a path through the middle sort of like Bevin in 2015 or Wallace Wilkinson did in 1987. Adkins appears to have the best ground game. But while Adkins has surprised some on the fundraising front, he doesn’t have the personal wealth to put into a race as Wilkinson did.
There are other ironies in this race. Edelen was chief of staff for Andy’s father, Steve Beshear when the elder Beshear was governor. I’m sure the Beshears weren’t happy when Edelen got in the race but they surely couldn’t have been pleased by the negative attacks.
So far the younger Beshear has chosen simply to contest Edelen’s charges — “setting the record straight” as Beshear’s campaign manager put it. But if polling shows Edelen’s strategy is paying off, look for Beshear to hit back.
If you like irony, check out Bevin’s latest TV ad. Well produced, it’s perfectly tailored for Kentucky with President Trump appearing as often as Bevin in the second half of the ad. But all I could think about was three years ago when Bevin said anyone who signed a confidential settlement of sexual harassment allegations should resign from office.
Bevin doesn’t seem to apply the same standard to Trump who we know has signed two such settlements and likely several more. I guess that’s what they call situational ethics. But as a teacher once told me, if ethics change with the situation, then they’re not ethics at all.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.