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Lawmaker runs underdog campaign against Kentucky governor

Posted at 1:02 PM, May 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-16 13:02:53-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Undaunted by his status as a political underdog, state Rep. Robert Goforth has logged more than 10,000 miles in his pickup truck and invested at least $750,000 of his own money into challenging Kentucky's governor in the state's Republican primary.

Along the way, he's tried to incite a GOP revolt against incumbent Matt Bevin. Goforth points to what he sees as the governor's shortcomings, from his handling of Kentucky's pension problems to his feud with groups representing public school teachers.

"The people of Kentucky are just fed up," Goforth said in a phone interview. "They're ready for a new direction."

Goforth, who hails from tiny East Bernstadt in Laurel County, is one of three GOP candidates challenging Bevin in the state's May 21 primary election.

In a state now dominated by Republicans, the GOP primary has been overshadowed by the Democratic gubernatorial race featuring three prominent candidates. But Goforth's candidacy could provide a measure of Bevin's popularity among Republicans after a tumultuous time as governor — and perhaps even hint at where his party stands with voters heading into the 2020 presidential election contests.

Bevin has run a low-key campaign that's looked beyond the primary. He plays up his support of President Donald Trump, a fellow businessman who has shaken up the political system and casts a shadow over Kentucky politics. Bevin also touts Kentucky's low unemployment and job growth under his leadership.

Meanwhile, Goforth has unloaded attacks against Bevin's policies and his pugnacious style. It could foreshadow the Democrats' strategy in what's expected to be a brutal fall campaign.

Like Bevin, Goforth points to a hardscrabble upbringing.

Goforth was high school dropout who rose from poverty to open a small chain of pharmacies, which he later sold. He represents a rural House district covering Jackson County and parts of Laurel and Madison counties. He won a special election in February 2018 to replace former GOP Rep. Marie Rader, who resigned because of health reasons. Goforth won a full term last November.

His willingness to challenge an incumbent governor reflects an independent streak he's displayed since winning state office.

Barely into his tenure in the state House, Goforth bucked GOP leadership to oppose changes to the state's public pension systems. The measure stirred massive protests by teachers at the state Capitol and later was struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Bevin's approval ratings slumped last year after he criticized teachers and others who opposed his efforts to overhaul the struggling public pension plans.

Now Goforth is trying to capitalize on what some see as Bevin's political vulnerabilities. Since he entered the primary campaign in early January, most of his campaign cash has come from his own bank account.

"I wouldn't have spent almost $1 million of my family's money and be looking to spend more to close out this campaign if I didn't think we could win," he said.

Goforth has run ads in cable markets and select regional network markets. In one, he asked if Kentuckians were "fed up" with Bevin insulting teachers, ridiculing judges and even referring to schoolchildren as "soft." It was a reminder of Bevin's comments last winter that school districts were too "soft" on kids when canceling classes due to cold weather.

Bevin and his main GOP challenger share solidly conservative credentials. Both vehemently oppose abortion and support gun rights. They oppose legalizing casino-style gambling in Kentucky.

But unlike Bevin, the challenger opposes charter schools. And he criticizes the governor's approach to tackling the state's massive pension problems.

Goforth's running mate is Lawrence County Attorney Mike Hogan, a veteran prosecutor who lost the GOP primary for attorney general in 2015.

The other Republicans running for governor are William Woods and Ike Lawrence.

Woods is a school bus driver and a Realtor from northern Kentucky. In a recent guest column in the Courier Journal, he promised to "return dignity, integrity and respect" to the governor's office if elected. He also wrote that "we must allow Kentuckians to benefit from expanded gaming and marijuana revenue."

Lawrence is a real estate developer who lives in Lexington. In his recent guest column in the same Louisville newspaper, he said he supports the phased-in elimination of the state income tax and shifting to a consumption tax. Lawrence said state leaders must do more to combat chronic statewide problems such as obesity, diabetes, premature births and smoking.

Lawrence reported raising more than $80,000 in campaign funds, with most coming from himself. A recent campaign-finance report showed Woods raising slightly more than $1,300.