LEXINGTON, Ky. — President Trump urged supporters here Monday night to send a signal to the nation by re-electing a Republican governor in Tuesday’s statewide election, seeking to mobilize what he called an “angry majority” against Democrats he said have “gone crazy.”
“Tomorrow you will vote to reject the Democrats’ extremism, socialism and corruption,” Mr. Trump said to raucous cheers at a campaign rally the day before Kentucky voters go to the polls for a vote Mr. Trump is casting as a test of his strength as he faces impeachment by House Democrats in Washington.
Mr. Trump hopes to push Kentucky’s incumbent Republican governor, Matt Bevin, across the finish line in a close race against the state’s Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear. Mr. Bevin has long struggled with low approval ratings, but Democrats see his plight as a sign that Mr. Trump has been weakened in Kentucky, a state he carried by 30 percentage points in 2016.
The Kentucky contest is one of three governor’s races Mr. Trump is seeking to influence. On Friday, he held a rally in Tupelo, Miss., to promote the candidacy of the state’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, who is in another tight race for the state’s top job. Mr. Trump plans to visit Louisiana on Wednesday to stump for a Republican candidate for governor in a Nov. 16 runoff election.
Polls show Mr. Bevin to be among the nation’s least popular governors — and even Mr. Trump acknowledged the governor’s reputation for antagonism.
“He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want!” Mr. Trump said, promoting Mr. Bevin as tough on crime and a defender of gun rights.
Mr. Trump also hailed the rising stock market, judicial confirmations and the recent killing by American forces of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, the radical Democrats are going insane,” said Mr. Trump, after his introduction by the country singer Lee Greenwood, who performed his hit song “God Bless the U.S.A.”
After trailing Mr. Beshear early, Mr. Bevin has drawn close and is hoping that Mr. Trump’s last-minute support can clinch his victory.
For Mr. Trump, a victory by Mr. Bevin would become a talking point in his argument that Democrats are defying the will of voters in an effort to “overturn” the 2016 election, although the very fact that Mr. Bevin is fighting for survival may suggest that Mr. Trump is weaker here than he was three years ago.
Promoting his visit on Twitter on Sunday, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Bevin as “GREAT” but made no mention of local issues, instead urging Kentucky voters to “send a strong signal to Nancy Pelosi and the Radical Left Democrats.”
Mr. Bevin seized on that theme when warming up the crowd for Mr. Trump at the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena here. He opened his remarks with a warning against what he called creeping “socialism” and asked whether his supporters would “allow evil to prevail in this country.”
“Are we going to allow people like Nancy Pelosi and ‘the squad’ to impeach this president?” Mr. Bevin asked, referring to the House speaker and four liberal congresswomen Mr. Trump has repeatedly attacked. The crowd responded with a resounding no.
Mr. Trump was also joined onstage by Kentucky’s two Republican Senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Referring to the whistle-blower who first raised alarms about Mr. Trump’s policy toward Ukraine, leading to the impeachment proceedings, Mr. Paul called on the news media to “do your job and print his name,” drawing some of the evening’s loudest cheers.
Mr. Bevin’s rival, Mr. Beshear, is the son of a former Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, Mr. Bevin’s immediate predecessor. Mr. Beshear’s early lead seemed less about any deep affection he had earned from Kentucky voters than deep distaste for Mr. Bevin, a former Army captain and manufacturing executive with a combative political style.
Democrats and Republicans alike have described him as a bully, a bipartisan antipathy that left him with little over 50 percent of the vote in this year’s Republican primary.
Teachers walked out in 2018 over budget cuts and proposed changes to teacher pensions, and were infuriated by comments he made about the walkout, including calling protesting teachers “selfish” and “ignorant” and attributing child abuse to absences caused by classes being canceled.
By early summer, surveys by both parties had the governor losing to Mr. Beshear, sometimes by considerable margins.
But Kentucky’s political gravity unquestionably favors Mr. Bevin, and a Mason-Dixon poll in mid-October showed the race a dead heat.
The state had been trending Republican long before 2016, but Mr. Trump accelerated the shift that year, with a broad appeal that stretched from conservative, churchgoing rural voters in the western part of the state to coal miners in the east.
Areas of the state with considerable Democratic registration advantages voted overwhelmingly for Trump; one county, which had never given its vote to a Republican presidential candidate, went for Mr. Trump by a nearly three-to-one ratio.
So when Mr. Beshear, in a campaign stop in June, talked of an opportunity to “stop the negative policies of Donald Trump,” Republicans immediately saw an opening, hammering him as out of step with an electorate that had overwhelmingly voted for the president three years ago.
“That was the beginning of the nationalization of the race,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist.
Mr. Bevin, meanwhile, tightly embraced Mr. Trump from the start. His first campaign ad featured multiple photos of himself alongside the president, and likened opposition to Mr. Trump with opposition to his own agenda. Mr. Beshear has not criticized the president recently.
Mr. Bevin’s campaign has also sought to tie Mr. Beshear to national Democrats, focusing on his support for abortion rights and his opposition to a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities in Kentucky. “He needed one or two things to differentiate himself from the national party and he couldn’t find it,” Mr. Jennings said.
A recent ad backing Mr. Bevin sponsored by the Republican Governors Association lumped Mr. Beshear in with the “radical resistance” in Washington who “want to impeach Trump and take us backward.”
At campaign stops — including with Vice President Mike Pence, who visited the state last week, and with Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. — Bevin aides have sported red hats reading “Going great in Kentucky/Keep Bevin/Trump.”
Mr. Bevin has also compared the Beshears to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, echoing Mr. Trump’s unfounded allegation that the Bidens are guilty of corruption. His campaign released an ad saying not only that Mr. Beshear “opposes President Trump” but that “his top supporters want to impeach our president.”
Nema Brewer, 46, a school district employee in Lexington who last year helped found a grass-roots teacher organization called 120 United, said the linking of Mr. Bevin and Mr. Trump — in the news media and in Mr. Bevin’s own ads — was one of the biggest challenges Beshear supporters faced campaigning.
“Bevin is not Trump,” she said. “When you insult everyday Kentuckians and they’re your neighbors it’s different. Trump is not your governor.”
Outside, as rallygoers lined up in the November chill, there was little sentiment among those interviewed that the event would change any minds about Mr. Bevin. It might excite some people who had tuned out the race, a few said, but was not likely to sway opinions about a figure about whom seemingly everyone in the state already has strong feelings.
“You either like him or you don’t at this point,” said Matt Hanson, 46, an engineer who said he would probably vote for Mr. Bevin. “He’s got to clean up this thing with the teachers,” he said of the governor, and the way to do that was by softening his image, not by standing alongside someone who shares his tendency toward abrasiveness. “If anything,” Mr. Hanson said of the rally, “this could hurt him.”
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