Kentucky’s gubernatorial grudge match reverberates for 2020

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Kentucky Governor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin casts his ballot in the state’s general election in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WEHT/AP) — Kentucky’s political grudge match between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear went to the voters to settle Tuesday, hours after the incumbent governor received a ringing presidential endorsement as he tried to overcome a tenacious challenger bearing a well-known last name.

The bitterly fought campaign ended with a major election-eve splash — a rally headlined by President Donald Trump at Rupp Arena in Lexington that was meant to give Bevin a last-minute boost in what was seen as a close race.

The result could reverberate far beyond Kentucky. The fierce contest was being watched closely for early signs of how the increasingly partisan impeachment furor in Washington might impact Trump and other Republican incumbents in 2020.

Among those with an especially keen interest: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s on the ballot himself next year in Kentucky.

Bevin tried to link himself to Trump’s popularity among Kentuckians in ads, tweets, and speeches throughout the campaign.

It was part of his strategy to nationalize the race and rev up his conservative base.

The governor called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ban on “sanctuary cities.” He denounced the impeachment probe of Trump. He also stressed his opposition to abortion.

Beshear, the son of Kentucky’s last Democratic governor, countered with a disciplined campaign style that stressed what he called “kitchen table” issues — education, jobs, and health care.

Bevin lashed out at teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky’s Capitol.

The election will settle a bitter rivalry that stretched from the statehouse to courtrooms and finally to the campaign.

Wielding his authority as the state’s top lawyer, Beshear filed a series of lawsuits challenging Bevin’s executive actions to make wholesale changes to boards and commissions and sought to block Bevin-backed pension and education initiatives.

In the highest-profile case, a Beshear lawsuit led Kentucky’s Supreme Court to strike down a Bevin-supported pension law on procedural grounds last year.

Bevin ramped up the rivalry by frequently attacking Beshear and his challenger’s father in deeply personal terms.

Beshear’s father, former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, preceded Bevin in office.

Meanwhile, the rivals offered voters stark differences on a host of issues. Many of those issues — including Trump and abortion — were on voters’ minds as they cast ballots Tuesday.

Retired teacher Nancy Ross said she could never support Bevin for his stance on education and his alignment with the president.

“I wouldn’t vote for Bevin if he was the last human on earth,” said Ross, 68, after casting a ballot for Beshear at an elementary school in Ashland, a small eastern Kentucky city on the Ohio River.

Donna Barker, a 78-year-old retired teachers assistant, said she voted for Bevin because his background in business allowed him to make tough decisions on pensions, reproductive rights, and education.

“It’s very important that we have a businessman and a good moral man,” she said, as she cautioned that “the pensions will probably get him.”

Bevin supports charter schools as part of a school-choice agenda. Beshear opposes them, saying they’ll divert money from public schools.

Bevin is an outspoken abortion opponent. Beshear supports abortion rights but backs “reasonable restrictions,” especially on late-term procedures.

Beshear wants to legalize casino gambling to raise revenue for underfunded public pension systems. Bevin sees expanded gambling as a “sucker’s bet.”

Bevin wants to require some “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients to get a job, go to school or volunteer to keep their benefits.

Beshear vowed to rescind the “waiver,” saying it would callously deprive tens of thousands of health coverage.

A federal judge blocked the work requirements. Bevin’s administration is appealing.

Kentucky’s secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, predicted that just 31% of Kentucky’s registered voters will go to the polls — at or slightly above turnout in the 2015 governor’s election.

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(This story was originally published on November 5, 2019)

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