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Rivals for Kentucky governor both have work to do

Posted at 1:55 PM, May 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 13:55:38-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The winning candidates for Kentucky governor drew just a fraction of the state's voters in party primaries this week, a signal that both have lots of work to do in what will likely be a brutal general election campaign.

Barely half of Republicans casting votes Tuesday chose to support Gov. Matt Bevin's reelection effort; Attorney General Andy Beshear drew even less of a percentage of his party faithful, although he garnered about 13,000 more votes than Bevin. The lower percentage was due in part to the fact that Beshear faced two serious opponents and Bevin only faced one.

Perhaps more significantly, about eight in 10 registered voters in Kentucky didn't bother to vote in the primaries at all.

Whoever is most effective at winning over primary voters who either backed other candidates or didn't vote at all will have a big advantage in a November election that will be watched closely for clues about the mood of the electorate heading into the 2020 presidential race. Democrats are looking to win back the governorship and the GOP is trying to sustain its recent dominance in Kentucky.

"It's going to be a close race," GOP strategist Scott Jennings predicted. "Bevin has work to do. So does Andy. I'm sure Trump will help shore up Bevin's GOP flank."

President Donald Trump's influence in advocating for Bevin's reelection could also be a factor. Trump recorded an election eve phone message for Bevin that went out to Republican voters statewide and then tweeted support for the governor. But Bevin still struggled.

With almost half of Republican voters choosing other candidates, the governor is "limping" out of the primary, Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said.

"If Andy can unite and energize Democrats, he has a very good chance to win," he said.

Beshear received endorsements and promises of help Tuesday night from his main Democratic opponents in the primary, longtime state lawmaker Rocky Adkins and former state auditor Adam Edelen.

Bevin's main GOP rival, state Rep. Robert Goforth, wished the governor well and promised to "be there for the Republican Party in November." But T.J. Litafik, Goforth's campaign manager, said the GOP's populist wing wants to be "respected and not shunned by party elites."

As opponents, Bevin and Beshear won't have trouble trumpeting their differences to mobilize support. They started soon after winning Tuesday night.

Bevin stressed his opposition to abortion while Beshear supports abortion rights.

"It's going to be a remarkably stark contrast between the two tickets — conservative vs. liberal, black and white, night and day," the governor said.

Beshear, meanwhile, slammed Bevin on health care and education. He accused Bevin of using bullying tactics against teachers for staging sickouts to protest pension and education bills.

"It's not about right vs. left," Beshear said. "Folks, it's about right vs. wrong."

Bevin supports charter schools as part of a school-choice agenda. Beshear opposes them, saying they'll divert money from public schools. Beshear supports expanded gambling to fund struggling public pension systems. Bevin calls expanded gambling a "sucker's bet."

Beshear — who had a big name-recognition advantage as the son of Steve Beshear, a former two-term governor — garnered 38% of the vote Tuesday.

Bevin, who is seeking a second term, received 52% of the GOP vote, while Goforth got 39%. The rest went to two other candidates.

Beshear must do well in Louisville and Lexington but also reclaim voters in the coal-producing eastern counties, many of them turned off by former Democratic President Barack Obama's environmental policies.

"Democrats have had a hard time winning those voters the last several cycles," said Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley. "That's going to be the challenge."

Beshear also has to make sure progressives who backed Edelen support him, Lasley said.

Bevin faces his own challenges in solidifying his conservative base, having lost about one-fourth of Kentucky's 120 counties to Goforth, mostly in eastern Kentucky.

Goforth put at least $750,000 of his own money into his campaign, attacking Bevin for his combative style and for his inability so far to gather the necessary support for a pension-relief measure.

Like Bevin, Goforth's supporters generally are social conservatives. But the anti-Bevin vote mostly reflected the governor's feuding with some public education groups, Lasley said.

Bevin has sharply criticized teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol, forcing some school districts to close. In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down last month, connecting a young girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by more teacher protests.

Beshear has baggage of his own, including a former top aide who went to prison for orchestrating a kickback scheme. The aide previously worked in Steve Beshear's administration. Federal authorities said neither Beshear was aware of the aide's misdeeds.