All politics is national? Kentucky governor’s race provides a test.

Why We Wrote This

Off-year elections often receive scrutiny for what they suggest about the upcoming cycle. In Kentucky, the incumbent’s focus on impeachment has drawn attention – but may be offset by local concerns.

Albert Cesare/The Cincinnati Enquirer/AP
Sheree Paolello, an anchor at WLWT News, moderates the final Kentucky gubernatorial debate between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin (right) and Democrat Andy Beshear, the state's attorney general, on Oct. 29, 2019, in Highland Heights, Kentucky.

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Three states will elect governors this year, including Mississippi and Louisiana. But pundits have focused primarily on Kentucky, where GOP Gov. Matt Bevin has framed Tuesday’s vote as a referendum on President Donald Trump – and the impeachment inquiry unfolding in Washington. A brash former businessman who’s clashed with teachers in his state, the Kentucky governor bears certain stylistic similarities to the president, in a race seen by many as a possible signal of what’s to come in 2020.

Yet in northern Kentucky, where the election is expected to be particularly close, many voters shake their heads at this hypothesis, pointing out that state governors have little to do with what’s going on in Washington. To them, this is just another example of Beltway types making broad assumptions about their political calculations, which are actually more nuanced. 

“They both have that abrasive, egotistical attitude – but the difference is action,” says Virgil Clem, a registered Republican who works in finance and is shopping for a new headlight for his daughter’s car at a Walmart in Fort Wright. “I can’t name three things Bevin has done for the state, but I can name a billion things Trump has done for our country.” 

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has been called President Donald Trump’s “Mini-Me.” 

A former businessman holding elective office for the first time, the Republican governor is an enthusiastic Twitter user who has refused to release his tax returns. He hates the “fake news” media and has repeatedly come under fire for controversial statements. 

So it’s no surprise that in his fight for reelection, Governor Bevin is clinging tightly to the president – praising him on the trail, featuring him in commercials, and closing his campaign Monday evening with a rally headlined by President Trump himself in Lexington.

Three states will elect governors this year, including Mississippi and Louisiana. But pundits and political analysts have focused primarily on Kentucky, where Mr. Bevin has tried to frame his reelection bid as a referendum on Mr. Trump – and specifically on the impeachment inquiry unfolding in Washington. As such, the race is seen by many as a possible foreshadowing, a signal one year out of what’s to come in 2020.

Yet in northern Kentucky, where the race is expected to be particularly close, many voters shake their heads at this hypothesis. To them, this is just another example of Beltway types making broad assumptions about their political calculations, which are actually more nuanced. 

“Because we have off-year gubernatorial elections, almost every presidential election they’ll look to Kentucky to see if it’s a barometer of what’s to come,” says James Larry Hood, a former adjunct history professor at the University of Kentucky. “It’s never as simple as that.” 

Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Democratic candidate, whose father was Mr. Bevin’s predecessor (and whom Mr. Bevin has given the Trumpian nickname “Lil’ Andy”), held a lead in the polls for months, at one point by a margin of 9 points. Evidence, Democrats say, of voters’ frustrations with Mr. Bevin’s – and Mr. Trump’s – caustic leadership style.

But the polls have tightened dramatically in recent weeks. An independent survey in mid-October showed Mr. Bevin and Mr. Beshear exactly tied, with 46% support. Evidence, Republicans say, of voters’ unhappiness with the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into the president. 

Some voters in northern Kentucky do say they support Mr. Bevin because he has been such a staunch defender of the president. But others – including many who proudly support Mr. Trump – say they dislike the governor because of his record in office, from which the commander in chief can’t save him.

“They both have that abrasive, egotistical attitude – but the difference is action,” says Virgil Clem, who works in finance in Independence, Kentucky, and is shopping for a new headlight for his daughter’s car at a Walmart in Fort Wright. “I can’t name three things Bevin has done for the state, but I can name a billion things Trump has done for our country.” 

National vs. local concerns 

Although Mr. Clem is a registered Republican, he says he’s doing some research on Mr. Beshear. Still, he doesn’t think he can bring himself to vote for a Democrat, and says he’ll probably just write in a candidate on Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t vote for Bevin if he was the last guy on the planet,” he says. “I don’t feel like he has the state’s best interests in mind.”

Mr. Bevin, a product of the tea party movement who once mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has achieved a number of GOP priorities since taking office, including new abortion restrictions and a right-to-work law. But many voters, including Republicans, criticize the governor for disparaging comments he made about teachers and other public servants. 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Abby Marsh waits to enter the debate on her Northern Kentucky University campus in a bright yellow T-shirt she made the weekend before that reads, "Anyone but Bevin." A middle grades education pre-major from Georgetown, Kentucky, Ms. Marsh says she has participated in teacher protests over the past two years against Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

In April 2018, Mr. Bevin signed a bill altering Kentucky’s public employee pension system, which is the worst-funded in the country. Teachers protested by calling in sick, which Mr. Bevin called “remarkably selfish and shortsighted,” and evidence of a “thug mentality.” Eventually the legislation was overturned after a suit led by Attorney General Beshear, but the back-and-forth on the issue has continued. Earlier this year, Mr. Bevin blamed several tragedies on the teachers strike, including the shooting death of a child.

Kentuckians say they have a particular allegiance to teachers – in such a rural state, everyone knows their town’s educators, and public education is one of Kentucky’s largest employers. In that sense, Mr. Bevin may have picked the wrong industry to fight with. This fall, Morning Consult ranked Mr. Bevin as the country’s second most unpopular governor, with an approval rating of 36%. 

In response to this backlash, in a state Mr. Trump won with almost 63% of the vote, it’s not surprising that Mr. Bevin has shaped his reelection as a test of loyalty to the president. In debates, as well as in a press conference in front of the state Capitol, Mr. Bevin has urged Mr. Beshear to voice his opinion on impeachment – a call Mr. Beshear has resisted.

“This race isn’t about the White House,” Mr. Beshear insisted in a debate in mid-October. “It’s about what’s going on in your house.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by many voters here, who point out that governors have little to do with what’s going on in Washington, and say they want solutions on local issues. The fifth and final gubernatorial debate at Northern Kentucky University last week featured questions about replacing the Brent Spence Bridge that connects Covington, Kentucky, to Cincinnati, Ohio; gambling; and the region’s drug epidemic. Impeachment did not come up.

A smattering of lawn signs

For all the national interest in the race, plenty of voters say they don’t have an opinion about the governor’s race. Some say they’ll vote Republican or Democratic because they always do. Some look surprised to hear there is an election Tuesday. Driving across northern Kentucky, real estate and anti-abortion lawn signs vastly outnumber signs for Mr. Bevin or Mr. Beshear.

Pumping gas at a United Dairy Farmers convenience store, Donna Collins, a nurse from Alexandria, Kentucky, says she hasn’t thought much about the race. “People are looking at Bevin badly because of the whole teacher thing,” she says. Still, she thinks he might win, because “people go with what they hear, and we’ve been hearing his name a lot.”

Abby Marsh waits to enter the debate on her Northern Kentucky University campus in a bright yellow T-shirt she made the previous weekend that reads, “Anyone but Bevin.” A middle grades education pre-major from Georgetown, Kentucky, Ms. Marsh says she has participated in teacher protests against the governor over the past two years. She doesn’t think Mr. Bevin will be reelected Tuesday. 

“I have so much family who are Republicans, like my parents,” says Ms. Marsh. “And they can’t stand him.”

She says her parents plan to attend Mr. Trump’s rally on Monday evening because they love Mr. Trump, not because they support Mr. Bevin.

Based on the governor’s two primary elections, he is not Kentucky Republicans’ overwhelming first choice for the job. In 2015, Mr. Bevin won the GOP nomination by only 83 votes. This year, the incumbent governor faced a competitive primary, in which state Rep. Robert Goforth won almost 40% of the vote. 

William Woods, a northern Kentucky native and licensed real estate agent who came in a distant third in this year’s Republican primary, recently endorsed the Democratic candidate, Mr. Beshear.  

“This endorsement is not political,” says Mr. Woods, outside the debate hall at Northern Kentucky University. “It’s about honesty and transparency.”

Just then, Mr. Bevin emerges from a black SUV and begins shaking hands with a small group of 10 or so supporters, one of whom is wearing a MAGA hat. “Four more years,” they chant. 

“This election is not about the president or the White House,” says Mr. Woods. “The only connection I see is that Bevin could not win without Trump.” 

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of Louisiana's gubernatorial election. It is November 16th. 

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