Commentary Election 2019 Politics

Much of the coverage of the Andy Beshear v. Matt Bevin governor’s race, mine included, assumes we are covering a fairly traditional contest in American politics. And that is true in a lot of ways. The teacher unions are allied with the Democrat, business groups with the Republican. The Democrat is emphasizing issues like education and health care, the Republican is emphasizing his opposition to abortion and illegal immigration. 

I’m fairly certain that model of coverage rightly applies to Andy Beshear, a fairly conventional Democrat who is essentially pledging to govern like his father, who was a fairly conventional Democratic governor. I’m not sure that model applies to Matt Bevin. In his first term, the governor has mixed traditional conservative policy stands with 1. Attempts to undermine the legitimacy of institutions that might check his power (like news outlets and the judiciary), 2. Very aggressive rhetoric attacking groups (teachers unions) and individuals (doctors who perform abortions) that he doesn’t agree with and 3. Conduct that ranges from very secretive (not disclosing the reasons for some of the trips he has taken on a plane owned by the state or releasing his tax returns) to potentially unethical (hiring longtime associates at high salaries for government jobs they don’t seem uniquely qualified for.) 

I think a Gov. Jamie Comer or a Gov. Mitch McConnell would have had similar policy goals to Bevin–I don’t think either of them would have attacked the press constantly or refused to release their tax returns. Based on what we have seen the past four years, I think it’s entirely possible that a second Bevin term includes: 

Bevin hasn’t proposed any of these things as his second term agenda. But it’s hard to look at his first term and consider them outlandish possibilities. Also, because of term limits, Bevin can’t run for a third term in Kentucky. So I expect he will start positioning himself for a 2024 presidential run if he wins reelection next month. (Bevin has already made visits to the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and regularly appears at events sponsored by the umbrella of groups affiliated with billionaire conservative activist Charles Koch.) If he starts planning a presidential run, Bevin will have obvious incentives to take steps that will please conservative activists nationally, even if they aren’t popular in Kentucky. 

No governor in America has completely ended their state’s participation in the Obamacare Medicaid expansion (some states never started participating, but even Republican states haven’t completely withdrawn once they began). No state has zero abortion clinics. Ending abortion and the Medicaid expansion in Kentucky would be the kind of moves that could distinguish Bevin from other fairly conservative Republican governors likely to position themselves for 2024 presidential runs, like Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida. 

I emphasize those items above because they are steps Bevin could take without Kentucky’s legislature having to sign off. And they would all constitute Bevin pushing his authority beyond normal means to act in ways that are unlikely to have much public support. 

In other words, this election in Kentucky may be about democratic values (like a press able to hold politicians accountable) as much as Democratic (or Republican) values. This is a complicated idea–to separate what are simply ideological differences from democratic values. You could argue Medicaid and the takeover of Louisville schools are essentially traditional left vs. right policy disputes. But I think it’s one thing for the state legislature to pass a limit on abortion and Bevin to sign it into law–and something different for Bevin and his aides to make it so hard for abortion clinics in Kentucky to operate that none remain. It’s different for Bevin to be critical of press coverage than for him to cast one of the state’s leading journalists as “Peeping Tom” for trying to figure out where the governor actually lives. 

“He is intentionally and explicitly aligning himself with ‘Trumpian’ approaches to governance, going out of his way to show disregard for many democratic norms,” said Benjamin Knoll, a political science professor at Centre College. 

Jason Gainous, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, has referred to Bevin’s attacks on institutions that challenge him as “right out of the authoritarian playbook.” 

A lot of what I’m saying roughly parallels what is happening at the national level: Donald Trump is enacting the kinds of conservative policies that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would have, but also doing things that it’s hard to imagine Cruz or Rubio doing (constantly questioning the legitimacy of the press, proposing to host the G-7 at one of the hotels his family owns, refusing to release his tax returns.) With Trump on the ballot, the 2020 presidential election will raise similar questions about how well the Democrat v. Republican frame of politics coverage applies to that race.  

So in the days before the election, it’s worth Kentuckians, including the press, trying to figure out where Beshear and Bevin stand on policy issues. But it’s also worth exploring these broader democratic values questions–Is Kentucky in for another four years of Trump-style norm breaking? Or will Bevin lose, or take a different course in his second term? 

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.