Matt Bevin to Make Shock Run for Kentucky Governor

The tea-party favorite is running again, and that means another tough primary challenge for a state party that has seen plenty of them.

Senate Republican primary candidate Matt Bevin (L) campaigns in a restaurant in Sligo, Kentucky, on April 23, 2014.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Jan. 27, 2015, 9:29 a.m.

Matt Bev­in is back, and that means trouble for Ken­tucky’s Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment.

Months re­moved from a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primary loss to Mitch Mc­Con­nell, the fiery tea-party can­did­ate launched an­oth­er statewide race Tues­day, this time for Ken­tucky gov­ernor.

Bev­in’s un­ex­pec­ted and late entry — he of­fi­cially joined the race less than two hours be­fore the state’s 4 p.m. dead­line — is a boon for the party’s most con­ser­vat­ive ele­ments, as it will boost their voice in a crowded cam­paign. But for the party as a whole, it com­plic­ates an already dif­fi­cult task: pre­vent­ing the com­pet­it­ive primary from crip­pling its can­did­ate be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion be­gins.

With Bev­in, Re­pub­lic­ans now have a four-way race. State Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mis­sion­er James Comer is the per­ceived front-run­ner, but he was already com­pet­ing against wealthy Louis­ville busi­ness­man Hal Hein­er and former Ken­tucky Su­preme Court Justice Will Scott. And with Bev­in, the GOP adds a can­did­ate with a com­bat­ive his­tory — par­tic­u­larly in his nasty race against Mc­Con­nell last year.

And if the party is un­able to pre­vent its primary sea­son from be­com­ing an all-out brawl, it risks los­ing the gov­ernor’s man­sion yet again: Re­pub­lic­ans have long sought the Ken­tucky gov­ernor­ship — and thought they had op­por­tun­it­ies to take it in re­cent races — but the state hasn’t had a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor since Ernie Fletch­er was ous­ted after one term in 2007. And over the past 50 years, Re­pub­lic­ans have held the state’s top spot for only eight.

“They’ll beat each oth­er up. Even if they’re all good can­did­ates, we’ll have four months hav­ing a fam­ily feud, or at least a fam­ily dis­cus­sion, and that’s go­ing to put [Demo­crats] in a good po­s­i­tion,” said Trey Grayson, Rand Paul’s 2010 Sen­ate primary op­pon­ent.

Demo­crats, mean­while, are set up to avoid a tough primary fight. They will al­most cer­tainly nom­in­ate At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jack Con­way, who lost the 2010 U.S. Sen­ate race to Paul. Con­way’s biggest primary obstacle was re­moved Monday when Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes op­ted to seek reelec­tion to her cur­rent post.

On the Re­pub­lic­an side, Bev­in’s entry makes any vic­tor’s path more com­plic­ated.

Bev­in is most likely to up­set the game plan of Comer, who so far has out-or­gan­ized and out-polled his op­pon­ents. Comer has worked for months to con­sol­id­ate sup­port from tea-party types — and those ef­forts were met with early suc­cess. He pos­ted the strongest fourth-quarter fun­drais­ing num­bers of any of his rivals at the end of 2014, and he has been rack­ing up en­dorse­ments from fig­ures, in­clud­ing Rep. Thomas Massie and former GOP Sen. Jim Bun­ning. But Bev­in is a state tea-party cham­pi­on, and he threatens to take some of that sup­port back.

Comer is also aim­ing to play up his rur­al roots and con­trast that with the urb­an pro­files of Hein­er — a former Louis­ville metro coun­cil­man and one­time may­or­al can­did­ate — and the Demo­crats’ Con­way, an­oth­er Louis­ville nat­ive.

“Comer’s go­ing nuts be­cause he does not want Bev­in in this race,” said former state Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Danny Briscoe. “[Bev­in’s] a tea-party guy, prob­ably the best-known tea-party per­son in Ken­tucky, and he’s not from Louis­ville. His votes will be off of Comer’s tally. That’s someone who could have a real im­pact.”

Comer and Hein­er both en­gender the re­spect of most Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­ans. Neither Mc­Con­nell nor Paul have ex­pressed any in­ten­tion of en­dors­ing in the primary, and they ap­pear con­tent to fully sup­port either should one of them be their party’s nom­in­ee, though they have yet to com­ment on Bev­in. (Grayson, who had Mc­Con­nell’s sup­port in his 2010 primary race against Paul, said, “I al­ways joke I’ll be the last guy [Mc­Con­nell] en­dorses in a primary. I say he’s learned his les­son from me.”)

Un­like Bev­in, Hein­er isn’t viewed as someone likely to kick up dust in the primary, ex­cept in one re­gard: money. Hein­er’s total net worth isn’t ex­actly known — he hasn’t been re­quired to file com­pre­hens­ive per­son­al fin­an­cial dis­clos­ures for elect­ive po­s­i­tions he’s sought in the past — but he put $4.2 mil­lion of his own money in­to the race early last year and ap­pears cap­able of put­ting in more. His deep pock­ets en­abled him to be­come the first can­did­ate to air TV ads this month, giv­ing him the op­por­tun­ity to define him­self, and oth­ers, early.

“This race will tell the story of how much money can mat­ter in a race,” said Holly Har­ris, a former top aide to Comer. “Comer has po­ten­tial to be a very strong fun­draiser. He has raised a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of money, but when you’re look­ing at someone that every time you raise a mil­lion, they can put in two, that’s very daunt­ing.”

For Hein­er’s op­pon­ents, giv­en the state’s $1,000 in­di­vidu­al con­tri­bu­tion lim­it, be­ing forced to com­pete with his money could res­ult in a GOP nom­in­ee walk­ing in­to the gen­er­al elec­tion low on cash against a Demo­crat who’s had four months to com­pile it.

Des­pite a his­tory of com­ing up short and a newly dif­fi­cult primary, there’s reas­on to be­lieve that 2015 could be the GOP’s year.

Pop­u­lar Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Be­s­hear is re­tir­ing after two terms, and Re­pub­lic­ans have made sig­ni­fic­ant gains down the bal­lot in re­cent years. Demo­crats still con­trol five of six statewide of­fices and have ma­jor­ity con­trol in the state House, but Re­pub­lic­ans have slowly ex­pan­ded their ma­jor­ity in the state Sen­ate and have con­trolled the cham­ber for more than a dec­ade. The GOP also won con­trol of county and mu­ni­cip­al of­fices — as well as dom­in­ated Demo­crats in re­cent U.S. Sen­ate races. (Mc­Con­nell, des­pite his primary scrap with Bev­in, trounced Grimes by a 56-41 per­cent mar­gin.)

The state GOP’s fail­ure to grab the top spot has be­come all the more frus­trat­ing for the party faith­ful as the South­ern states around them have be­come more Re­pub­lic­an-dom­in­ated. The Ken­tucky House is the only state le­gis­lat­ive cham­ber that Demo­crats still con­trol in the South. Be­s­hear will leave of­fice as one of few Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors left in the re­gion: Mis­souri and West Vir­gin­ia are still run by Demo­crats, but from Arkan­sas to Flor­ida, Re­pub­lic­ans have pitched a gubernat­ori­al shutout.

But the GOP is hop­ing to push the bound­ary north: “All the signs are that Ken­tucky’s just get­ting close to break­ing out our way,” Mc­Con­nell said in an in­ter­view with the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Lead­er earli­er this month.

Even Demo­crats con­cede a Re­pub­lic­an takeover is pos­sible. “The trend, if you graphed it, is go­ing straight down,” Briscoe said. “There are a lot of people who think that dir­ec­tion is in­ev­it­able, and if we get a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, it will be in­ev­it­able.”

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