Kentucky Governor’s Race Tests Impact of Impeachment in States

GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Addressing a group of Democratic activists last week, Kentucky’s attorney general and nominee for governor, Andy Beshear, flayed his Republican opponent, Gov. Matt Bevin, for his record and his incendiary conduct to argue why voters should oust the incumbent. In the audience here a lawyer wore an oversized “IMPEACH” button, but Mr. Beshear made clear that his concerns were strictly local.

“Regardless of how much this governor wants to hide behind it,” Mr. Beshear said in an appearance just north of Lexington, “this race is about nothing going on in Washington, D.C.”

The next morning, at a Shoney’s 40 miles due south of Louisville, Mr. Bevin delivered a very different message as he stood before an oversized cardboard poster. The picture featured him and President Trump coming off Air Force One together along with a testimonial caption, in case anybody missed the point: “‘A terrific man. And a terrific governor’ — President Trump.”

Mr. Bevin reminded the Republican audience that Mr. Trump would soon return to the state on his behalf ahead of the Nov. 5 election, and vowed that, unlike his rival, “I will stand proudly with this president and vice-president and their administration.”

There are three governor’s races and control of the Virginia legislature at stake in this off-year election, but it’s Kentucky where the most consequential campaign is taking place — and where the political impact of impeachment on the two parties is being put to the most visible test.

The Beshear-Bevin contest represents the first, best indicator of whether Republicans can harness anger over the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump to rouse their rural base — or whether Democrats will benefit from an increasingly urban voting bloc that is energized by what it sees as a lawless presidency.

Of the Republicans running for governor this year in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky, Mr. Bevin has been the most forceful on the issue. His campaign and the Republican Governor’s Association are airing closing ads that link Mr. Beshear to impeachment.

His motivation for nationalizing the race also offers a dissertation-ready political science experiment: to see whether one of the most despised governors in the country can get re-elected by virtue of a Trumpian electorate affirming its tribal preference. To do so, voters would have to set aside their unease with, among other things, their governor’s abrasive style, which includes portraying striking teachers as accessories to child molestation.

This combination of the president’s appeal, in a state he carried by nearly 30 points, and Mr. Bevin’s low standing with voters is why Mr. Beshear is so eager to keep the race contained within Kentucky’s borders.

“It’s become the ultimate political test between an unpopular governor and the magnetic pull of President Trump, who is incredibly and increasingly popular here,” said Dan Bayens, a Republican strategist based in Lexington, where the president will put his political capital on the line in an election-eve rally supporting Mr. Bevin.

But the implications of the governor’s race go well beyond this election. In a state that kept electing Democratic leaders and legislative majorities after its neighbors further south turned Republican, the 2019 elections may also determine whether Kentucky Democrats are viable even in the most favorable local conditions.

That could determine who ultimately is the party’s nominee next year against Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Matt Jones, a popular sports talk personality, has told people he’s unlikely to run if Democrats here are so weakened that they cannot even unseat an enfeebled Mr. Bevin.

“If we can’t win this year …” said Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, his voice trailing off.

Polls initially showed Mr. Beshear leading but Mr. Bevin has closed the gap and, in an interview, the governor flashed his characteristic bravado by offering a Joe Namath-style guarantee — even putting a point number on his anticipated triumph.

“I’d say six to 10 percent,” he predicted of his margin of victory, adding: “I think you’re going to be shocked at how uncompetitive this actually is.”

Mr. Bevin’s brashness is owed in part to recent Kentucky political history: he won the governorship by nearly nine points in 2015, far more than was expected, and last year one of the best-funded Democratic recruits in the country, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, lost a House race even as her party picked up 40 seats nationally (Ms. McGrath is now running against Mr. McConnell).

Yet that was all before the daily headlines from Washington on impeachment carried the possibility of rousing voters in both parties.

“This will be a signal to the rest of the country about where Kentucky stands and it’s very important that we support Gov. Bevin,” and by extension Mr. Trump, said Representative Brett Guthrie, a Republican, as he appeared with Mr. Bevin at the Shoney’s.

Kentucky Democrats, for their part, scarcely need motivation.

“In my district it’s all anybody wants to do is impeach him,” Mr. Yarmuth said of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Yarmuth’s Louisville-based seat is also filled with clear indicators of the other galvanizing force for local Democrats.

“Stop Bevin, Elect Beshear,” read the signs erected on the well-manicured lawns of the state’s largest city, where the size of Mr. Beshear’s margin is crucial to his overall prospects.

Even as Kentucky’s economy has soared, the governor has become toxic in much of the state because of his efforts to curb the Medicaid expansion enacted by the last governor, Mr. Beshear’s father. Mr. Bevin has also alienated voters with his overhaul of state pension plans, and, most of all, with the inflammatory language he has used in going about it.

Most notoriously, when his own party overrode his veto last year in the face of a mass walkout by teachers, Mr. Bevin said: “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.”

In the interview, the governor dismissed a question about whether he had any regrets and said voters could count on more of what he described as needed reforms of a state government long dominated by Democrats.

“Sometimes the truth hurts, sometimes when you make hard decisions it makes people uncomfortable,” Mr. Bevin said, vowing: “It’s going to continue to happen for the next four years because there’s a lot of cleanup that needs to be had.”

But, as they emphatically demonstrated in 2016, bombast is not a deal breaker for this state’s voters.

Most alarming to Democrats is that their ancestral strength in rural eastern and western Kentucky has collapsed as the national party grows more liberal and their onetime voters act on culture and identity more than class solidarity and partisan loyalty. For example, in 2004, John F. Kerry won Pike County, a coal hub wedged along the border with Virginia and West Virginia, by five points. Three years ago, Hillary Clinton lost it by nearly 63 points, garnering just 17 percent of the vote.

Mr. Beshear won’t suffer such eye-popping losses, in part because of Mr. Bevin’s unpopularity in the mountains. He lost much of Eastern Kentucky to a lightly-funded rival in this year’s Republican primary.

Rocky Adkins, a native of the region and the runner-up to Mr. Beshear in the gubernatorial primary, pointed out, the top employer in most of the counties there is the local school district and the next largest is often the health care industry, which has been bolstered by the Medicaid expansion.

Beyond the possibility of an impeachment backlash, Kentucky Democrats worry that rural voters may punish Mr. Beshear on two other national issues: immigration and abortion rights.

Mr. Beshear has largely steered clear of the culture wars, hoping instead to make the election a singular referendum on the incumbent. “Folks, this election is going to determine if somebody who acts like Matt Bevin is the exception or the rule,” he told the Democratic activists here the other night.

Yet while condemning the governor is the centerpiece of his campaign, the attorney general is more reluctant to say even a skeptical word about Mr. Trump, himself a breaker of norms.

In an interview, Mr. Beshear was tougher on congressional Democrats for their approach to impeachment — “I would like to see more of any proceedings happen in the public” — than he was on the president.

Asked if he thought Mr. Trump was a good man, Mr. Beshear said “I don’t know the president” before adding that he could work with any president helping Kentucky.

At the same time, Mr. Bevin’s relationship with the president is more complicated than he would like Kentucky Republicans to believe.

He has spent so much time around the Trump White House that Republicans here and in Washington began to wonder if he was seeking an administration job to escape a difficult re-election. But when one well-connected Kentucky Republican inquired about that possibility with an administration official the word came back that there was no mutual interest: “We like him where he is,” the official replied icily, according to the Republican here.

As with some other Republicans, Mr. Bevin is also closer to Vice President Mike Pence, his former neighboring governor, than he is with Mr. Trump.

In fact, as Mr. Bevin stood before the poster of himself and Mr. Trump to boast of his loyalty to the president, he didn’t refer to him by name. He invariably spoke of “the president and vice president” in the same breath and felt compelled to allow that neither is “a perfect person.”

It was hardly the sort of to-be-sure that a crowd decked out in Make America Great Again gear came expecting, but Mr. Bevin bridled afterward when asked why he always took care to invoke Mr. Pence. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, they both serve this country,” he shot back with evident irritation before pronouncing the inquiry “silly” and demanding to know if a reporter had “any real questions.”

It was a demonstration of the Bevin bluster — and perhaps an acknowledgment that he doesn’t like being reminded of his reliance on Mr. Trump.

Back in Georgetown, even Charlie Perkins, the Democrat wearing the “IMPEACH” button, conceded that the president he loathes may be the key to re-electing the governor he loathes.

“That’s probably the only lifeline he’s got,” Mr. Perkins said of Mr. Bevin.