On election eve, surrounded by 20,000 enthusiastic Trump supporters in Rupp Arena, Kentucky’s temple to college basketball, Gov. Matt Bevin exclaimed, ‘This is better than the Final Four!’
The entire arena paused. It was an attempt to connect with the crowd that fell horribly flat, the sort of thing no native Kentuckian would have said. To a Kentucky basketball fan nothing is better than the Final Four.
Despite winning the governorship by nine points in 2015, Bevin has never quite clicked with Kentucky. Born in Colorado and raised in New Hampshire, Bevin moved to Louisville after making a fortune in investments. Riding the Tea Party wave, he tried to primary Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. Bevin was easily dispatched by McConnell, but he refused to play nice and endorse the senator for the general election.
Undeterred by defeat, Bevin jumped into the next year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, somehow surviving the four-man race with an 83-vote margin and less than a third of the GOP vote (there is no primary run-off in Kentucky). He then upset Democratic nominee attorney general Jack Conway. Conway was a man of little personality. Bevin always had a little too much.
Bevin’s time as governor has been dominated by the state pension crisis, which was ranked the worst in the nation. Bevin pushed to fully fund the pension after years of budget shortfalls and mismanagement. In that he laudably succeeded. But his attempts to reform the pension system structure were often heavy handed, and were serially challenged by attorney general Andy Beshear, the son of the previous governor (Beshear oversaw a government in exile from the AG’s office, acting as Bevin’s constant nemesis).
It was during the pension reform process that Bevin’s feud with Kentucky’s teachers began, a fight that would lead to his downfall. In opposition to Bevin’s reforms, the Kentucky Education Association organized a teacher rally at the Kentucky Capitol that led to school closings across the state. Bevin responded that somewhere a child was sexually assaulted because they weren’t in school, that somewhere a child ingested poison because teachers weren’t doing their job. Later when some teachers forced school closings with unauthorized sick outs, Bevin demanded their names from local school systems and threatened the teachers with $1,000 fines for each day they missed.
Politics is all about picking battles, and Bevin had chosen the wrong one.
In Kentucky nearly everyone is related to a teacher (including this writer). While Bevin’s goal was to fund and reform an ailing pension that had been ignored by past governors, his efforts turned into an escalating war with the very group he was ostensibly trying to help. Frustrated that teachers weren’t cooperating with his vision, Bevin compared teachers to drowning victims who are ‘pulling you under’ and who needed to be ‘knocked out’ for their own good.
All of this led Bevin to be ranked as the most unpopular governor in the nation with only a 32 percent approval rating as he approached reelection. How bad did things get? Even Bevin’s own hand-picked lieutenant governor took him to court over firing her staff without first informing her.
With his personal popularity plummeting, Bevin sought to nationalize the governor’s race, bringing in a string of Trump administration officials from Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Ben Carson to Vice President Mike Pence until finally Donald Trump arrived for a rally the night before the election.
But it wasn’t enough for Bevin who finally fell less than 5,000 votes short in his re-election bid against Andy Beshear, the son of the previous governor. To see how much margin of error Bevin squandered, just look down ballot where the GOP swept the other statewide offices in impressive fashion.
GOP treasurer Allison Ball won re-election by a 22 percent margin. Republican newcomer Daniel Cameron, a McConnell protégé, took the attorney general’s seat by 16 percentage points, defeating a former Democratic attorney general and speaker of the House to become the first African American to win statewide office independently. Bevin’s defeat had required a lot of studious ticket splitting by instinctive GOP voters.
In fact, once you take Bevin’s loss out of the equation, the GOP in Kentucky has literally never been stronger, holding every statewide constitutional office and maintaining solid control of the state legislature. Bevin, meanwhile, becomes persona non grata in the Kentucky GOP.
Even Donald Trump, no builder of bridges himself, as he stood on the stage in Lexington’s Rupp Arena to push Bevin over the finish line, said of the governor as he introduced him to the gathered crowd, Bevin is ‘a pain in the ass.’
Alan Cornett is a writer in Lexington, Ky.