The late August event at the arena in Pikeville, Kentucky, was reportedly so sparsely attended that organizers had to ask the audience to move closer to the stage. Local reporters posted pictures to Twitter showing an almost bare auditorium, with the balloon arch on stage offering one of the few signs that this was supposed to be a political rally.
If crowd size at a rally were a reliable metric for support, as President Trump often claims it is, then Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin seemed to be in trouble.
Bevin, who is facing reelection in November, had organized the rally with Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., in Pike County, which strongly supported Mr. Trump in the 2016 election. The county voted for Bevin four years ago, but more recently had supported Bevin’s Republican challenger Robert Goforth in the primary.
Organizers have asked the audience to move out of the seats and closer to the stage ahead of Trump Jr/ Gov. Bevin event in Pikeville.I think it’s fair to say this is sparsely attended. pic.twitter.com/JghTohDROS
— Ryland Barton (@RylandKY) August 29, 2019
Speaking to the small crowd, Trump Jr. warned attendees that “this is not your father’s Democratic Party.” Eastern Kentucky, which includes Pike County, has historically been a Democratic stronghold — a trend that changed with Mr. Trump’s election, when the president won the county by 63 percentage points. Bevin is trying to nationalize the race by tying himself closely to the still-popular president.
Despite Trump Jr.’s warning, Andy Beshear, the son of former Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, is attempting to convince Kentuckians that he is in fact running on his father’s values, and they have not changed significantly in the years since his father was the state’s chief executive.
Beshear would rather keep the race focused on issues in Kentucky, where Bevin is largely disliked. According to Morning Consult, Bevin is the least popular governor in the country, with a disapproval rating of 56%. The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan election analysis newsletter, has rated the Kentucky gubernatorial race as a toss-up.
It will be an uphill battle for a Democrat to win in a state where Mr. Trump won by 30 percentage points, but Bevin may just be weak enough that Republican turnout reflects the low turnout at that August rally.
“As one person told me recently, Andy Beshear can’t win — but Bevin can lose,” said Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Bevin only won the May 21 Republican primary with 52% of the vote. He was facing three challengers, but Goforth, a state representative, his most significant opponent, received 39% of the vote. Only 17.5% of Kentucky’s registered voters turned out to vote.
Bevin has alienated a key constituency in the state’s teachers. In a fight over teachers’ pensions last year, which saw school closures as educators descended on the state capitol to protest a pension reform bill, Bevin called teachers “selfish and shortsighted.”
In April 2018, the Kentucky legislature overrode Bevin’s veto of a trio of bills including a pension reform bill, and separately overrode a bill that would have cut pensions for new teacher hires. After striking teachers went to the state capitol to demonstrate in favor of overriding Bevin’s veto, the governor claimed that the teachers’ departure from Kentucky’s classrooms had left students vulnerable to criminal attack.
“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,” Bevin said at the time. He apologized after the Republican-led state House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning his comments.
This year, teachers called out sick in protest of a bill which they argued would benefit private schools at the expense of public ones, causing several school closures in the spring.
Beshear has brought a lawsuit challenging the Bevin administration for demanding that school districts turn over the names of the teachers who called out sick. The case will be heard by a state circuit judge.
Several teachers unions have flocked to support Beshear, who has made public education a focal point of his campaign. He has promised an across-the-board pay raise of $2,000 for all public school teachers if elected, and has a plan on his campaign website to strengthen public education. His running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, is a longtime educator and basketball coach who founded a nonprofit to empower college women in Kentucky to seek leadership roles on campus.
Beshear and Coleman have been endorsed by Kentucky Educators Political Action Committee, the political arm of the Kentucky Educators Association, which represents 45,000 aspiring, active and retired educators in the state. KEA members have been particularly involved in the campaign; local KEA associations have held election events in more than 100 of the 120 counties across the state.
KEA President Eddie Campbell said in an interview with CBS News that KEA members have been involved in postcard-writing, door-knocking and phone-banking to engage other union members in the election.
“Our educators have been more motivated and active than we’ve ever seen,” Campbell said. Campbell said that the state’s teachers have “been through a lot,” and that Bevin had “put down teachers over and over and over again.”
Cross said that while the 41-year-old Beshear faces an uphill battle, broad support from the state’s educators could propel him to victory.
“I do not think Andy Beshear inspires confidence of a broad range of voters but he does have the teachers for him in a big way,” said Cross, adding that the state’s teachers “aim to have their pound of flesh out of this governor.”
Beshear has also made health care key to his campaign. Beshear’s father, Bevin’s predecessor, expanded Medicaid in Kentucky under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, Bevin received permission from the Trump administration to add work requirements to Medicaid benefits for some recipients. State officials have estimated that 95,000 people would lose coverage, although Bevin argues that adding work requirements would save the state money.
As attorney general, Beshear opposes a federal lawsuit which would undo the ACA and which is currently winding its way through the federal court system.
Bevin is hitting Beshear hard on immigration in this campaign. A 30 second ad launched by the Bevin campaign in September accuses Beshear of supporting sanctuary cities and evokes imagery of the notorious Central American gang MS-13.
The ad starts with footage of people climbing over a wall, followed by a picture of heavily tattooed men. “Illegal immigration is hurting America,” the voiceover intones, “The crime, the cost — Governor Bevin won’t let it hurt Kentucky.”
“While President Trump and Governor Bevin crack down on illegal immigration, liberal Andy Beshear sides with illegal immigrants,” the voiceover says over a photo of Bevin and Mr. Trump.
The ad highlights Bevin’s ties to Mr. Trump while raising one of the president’s signature issues. Although Kentucky is far from the southern border, illegal immigration is an issue which reliably motivates Mr. Trump’s base.
Bevin told reporters in September that illegal immigration is not “a huge issue for us as a state, but it’s a concern for this country,” according to the Associated Press.
“Surprisingly for a state that’s not a border state, it comes up time and time again near the top of people’s lists,” Bevin said in September. “And I think in some measure driven by the fact that nationally it’s very topical. I think people believe that we should have immigration but it should follow the law.”
Beshear’s campaign spokesman Sam Newton argued to the Associated Press that Beshear “made sure that Kentucky did not have any sanctuary cities so that Kentucky would receive its share of federal funds for law enforcement.”
Bevin’s campaign has released a few ads with illegal immigration as the focus, including one which links the opioid crisis to illegal immigration. His campaign has also slammed Beshear for his support for the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade. Bevin has signed several bills restricting a woman’s right to get an abortion.
According to an analysis by NBC News, 86% of all ad spending in the gubernatorial race focuses primarily on abortion and immigration.
Campbell told CBS News that supporters of Beshear were “reluctant to nationalize the race,” which is Bevin’s strategy. Illegal immigration and abortions are top voting issues for Mr. Trump’s base that could help turn out Republicans to vote for Bevin in November.
“There are just a lot of Republicans who are not going to take the trouble to go vote for Matt Bevin and he’s trying to motivate them with issues like immigration and abortion,” Cross said.
The newly launched impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump may further nationalize the race, as Bevin seeks to tie Beshear to the Democrats in Congress seeking to impeach the president.
In a press conference outside the governor’s mansion in early October, Bevin called the inquiry an “absolute travesty” that is “destroying this nation.” He said that Beshear needs to take a stand on impeachment, calling it a “fundamental question” of his opponent’s campaign.
Beshear’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers, said in a statement posted to Medium that Bevin’s press conference was an attempt to distract Kentuckians from the important issues of the race: health care and education.
“It is clear that with a disastrous record of trying to strip away health care and bullying teachers, his campaign is flailing and his approach is to lash out,” Hyers said. “As Andy Beshear has already said publicly numerous times, he is the state’s top prosecutor and relies on evidence and facts. …He believes that if Congress moves forward, any proceedings should be nonpartisan and focus on facts and evidence.”
While Beshear’s camp tries to downplay the importance of impeachment, it appears to be another important factor for Mr. Trump’s base. Mr. Trump’s son, Eric Trump, said last month that the Trump campaign had raised $8.5 million in the 48 hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry.
The question for the race is whether immigration, abortion and the impeachment inquiry combined may be enough to motivate Republican voters to put their boots to the ground and head to the polls for Bevin on Election Day.
“Impeachment at first blush would seem to help Bevin because it gets a reaction from his base and more nationalizes the race,” Cross said. “But there are many layers of the onion to be peeled.”
Ultimately, the old political adage remains true: it all comes down to turnout. Kentucky gubernatorial elections always take place in years that have neither presidential elections or midterm elections. The lack of either a congressional or presidential election to motivate voters could dampen turnout. Roughly 30% of registered voters participated in the 2015 gubernatorial election.
Bevin’s task may be easier, as the state already leans Republican. But his unpopularity may overwhelm Republican desire to support Mr. Trump.
Beshear needs to ensure strong turnout in Kentucky’s two biggest states, Lexington and Louisville, which lean Democratic. He may also make a play for eastern Kentucky, the traditionally Democratic portion of the state which went for Mr. Trump in 2016.
For his part, Campbell expressed confidence that Kentucky teachers’ union members, many of whom are personally volunteering for the campaign, will turn out in November.
“Educators vote. They know the importance of voting. We expect them to go out and do their civic duty,” Campbell said.
Aaron Navarro and Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed to this report
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