Kentucky Governor’s Race Brings Whiskey Money and Taste of 2020

  • Bevin, as Trump ally, seeks to fend off GOP primary challenge
  • Democrats try to reclaim ground lost as state turned red

There’s a Republican incumbent with historically low approval ratings and a slew of Democratic challengers from across the spectrum trying to win back voters drifting from the party.

Welcome to Kentucky, where comparisons of this year’s gubernatorial contest to the 2020 presidential race are as common as candidates referring to their hometowns as “hollers.”

Bluegrass State voters head to the polls on May 21, the first of three gubernatorial primaries this year, ahead of Mississippi and Louisiana.

The results will determine whether Gov. Matt Bevin (R) — ranked in a recent survey as among the most unpopular governors in the nation — can beat back three GOP challengers to take on the winner of a Democratic primary field that includes the state’s attorney general.

Democrats view the election as a prime opportunity to reclaim political ground from Republicans, who seized control of state government in recent years and have a supermajority in the state House and Senate. Democrats held the House for 95 years prior to the 2016 election.

The races focus on state issues but have parallels to the overall contest for America’s highest office, according to University of Kentucky political science professor D. Stephen Voss.

“The Democratic primary sets up a fascinating experiment in terms of what Democrats have to do to succeed in relatively red states,” Voss said. “The dilemma Democrats face here is the dilemma Democrats face in a lot of Trump territory—they need to make the election about the pocketbook, lunch-pail issues, family struggles. What hurts the Democrats is when voters in these places think an election is a cultural or social referendum on how quickly society is changing.”

Bevin is pitching himself as an ally of President Donald Trump, who carried 62.5 percent of the state’s vote in 2016.

There are similarities between the two men on policy, personality and messaging.

Like the president, Bevin was a businessman before launching an outsider campaign and has refused to release his tax returns. Since his 2015 victory, Bevin has lowered corporate income tax rates, overhauled criminal sentencing, touted reductions in regulation, and presided over record economic development.

He frequently points to Trump’s similar federal policies as evidence the two are in lockstep.

“Governor Bevin is partnering with President Trump to create over 50,000 new jobs, leading to the lowest unemployment in Kentucky history,” Bevin campaign manager Davis Paine said in an email.

Bevin has stepped on toes, creating a sometimes-frayed relationship with his GOP-controlled legislature. Last December, Bevin called a special session to enact a public pension overhaul only to have the legislators close the session a day later with no vote. In the last several weeks Bevin tried to rally Republicans on another pension bill but can’t coalesce enough support.

Bevin’s penchant for cutting, extemporaneous remarks has also generated public blowback. He recently received widespread criticism after saying public school teachers in a “sick out” protest were responsible for a child’s shooting because children were kept home from closed schools.

Such statements have contributed to Bevin’s lowest-in-the-nation 33 percent approval rating, according to a Morning Consult poll.

Incumbent’s Edge

His unpopularity encouraged primary challenges from three opponents.

Still, Bevin had a 38-point advantage over his chief primary challenger, State Rep. Robert Goforth, according to a survey conducted May 10-12 by Cygnal, a national public opinion and market research firm.

Goforth has sought to make the race about Bevin’s personality and in-office scandals.

“He’s nationalizing this election instead of talking about Kentucky’s tough challenges we face and coming on this show or any other one to talk about these issues,” Goforth, a pharmacist, said in a May 15 local TV interview. Goforth called Bevin a “fraud and phony” and challenged the governor to a debate “if he’s not scared.”

Another candidate, Ike Lawrence, said he wanted to broaden the party’s discussion beyond job creation and pension overhauls to more out-of-the-box ideas, such as campaign spending caps, traffic safety, and higher-education reform.

“You don’t go putting down your sitting governor, you try to be a better team player,” he said May 15.

Bevin’s third challenger, realtor and school bus driver William Woods, said he’s “running to restore integrity and dignity to the governor’s office,” and added that a race with three challengers to Bevin’s re-election shows the Kentucky GOP has “major problems.”

Kentucky’s most prominent Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, hasn’t weighed in on the primary. McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2020, faced a primary challenge from Bevin in 2014. Last year, McConnell said he wanted Bevin to run for a second four-year-term as governor, signaling an improvement in their previously contentious relationship.

Democratic Electability

The main Democratic hopefuls have positioned themselves into distinct ideological lanes for primary voters while stressing messages about their electability.

Front-runner Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear pitches himself as a pragmatic centrist fighter who touts plans for raising more than $700 million to fund the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension fund, mostly through taxes on expanded casino gaming and sports betting.

He’s proposing beefing up health care protections, including banning discrimination against people with preexisting conditions, in the case that the Affordable Care Act is ruled unconstitutional.

He has sparred in court with Bevin over pensions, abortion restrictions, state funding for universities, and state subpoenas of teachers union sickout strikes.

Another primary contender is state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a bluegrass guitar-playing Democrat who’s led the party’s House caucus for 13 years both in the majority and minority.

Adkins, who opposes abortion, stresses his moderate positions, good relationships with Republicans, and his intimate knowledge of the state’s budget due to his overseeing the process for years.

“We don’t need radicals on either side of the aisle in state government,” Adkins said. “The way this election goes could be an indication of a larger trend across America.”

Voss said that Adkins has parallels to former vice president Joe Biden, who has emphasized pragmatic positions and ties to the working class but unlike Adkins favors abortion rights.

“Adkins represents the Democrats outside the cities, someone who has credibility in rural counties,” Voss said.

Assuming the mantle of “progressive” is former Kentucky Auditor and solar energy entrepreneur Adam Edelen. On the trail, he’s stressed his opposition to abortion restrictions, pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy. He’ll frequently say he “is going to lead from the front,” and raises issues like renewable energy, gay rights and racial equality that Voss said connect with progressive voters but may be tough sells for conservative Kentucky.

A fourth Democratic long-shot candidate, Geoff Young, used a May 15 debate to criticize Beshear and Edelen, who he called “crooks” and accused of “rigging the primary.” Young, an engineer and clean energy advocate who didn’t participate in all debates, is running on marijuana legalization, raising state taxes on the wealthy and passing universal healthcare.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican candidates couldn’t agree on debates, with campaigns pointing fingers at each other as the reason for no televised confrontation.

Whiskey Money

While Democrats have largely been cordial in their four debates, the television ads sponsored by the campaigns and outside groups have veered negative.

The group Kentuckians For A Better Future ran an attack ad highlighting how a Beshear employee violated campaign finance law and how Beshear’s attorney general campaign allegedly took a donation from Purdue Pharma—an accusation Behsear denies.

Purdue, a pioneer in the development of pain management medication such as OxyContin, has been criticized for helping to fuel the opioid epidemic that has been particularly devastating in rural communities in Kentucky. Beshear has sued Purdue in one of nine cases his office brought against companies that manufacture, distribute and retail opioids.

According to state campaign finance disclosures through May 6, Kentuckians For A Better Future raised $1 million from Christina Brown, the wealthy mother-in-law of Edelen’s running mate Gill Holland. Brown’s family owns Brown—Forman, a company that controls brands such as Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve.

Holland, a Louisville developer, has also provided about $2.5 million to the Edelen campaign, which has raised $3.4 million. The campaign has spent about $2.7 million so far, according to the latest campaign finance report.

Beshear’s campaign has raised a total of $2.2 million, according to a May 15 release. Adkins has raised $1.6 million, according to their campaign filing.

On the Republican side, Bevin raised about $1.06 million and has spent about $752,272, while Goforth has raised $766,452.32 and spent about $289,211, according to their campaigns’ latest filings.

In contrast, Bevin spent $3,240,835.67 to lock up the GOP nomination in the 2015 primary, according to state records.

Goforth has run attack ads aimed at Bevin’s character, saying in one “as the most unpopular governor in America Matt Bevin can’t win.”

Bevin has run an upbeat spot highlighting his record and his upbringing in a “financially humble home” with “Christian values.”

The ad includes several shots of him next to the president. “President Trump is taking America to new heights,” he says in the ad. “Together our changes are working.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; Katherine Rizzo at