Politics

Nine months after Republicans dominated Kentucky’s November elections, Gov. Matt Bevin got to take a victory lap at last weekend’s Fancy Farm. And top Democrats skipped the event, leaving him largely unchallenged by opponents onstage.

It was a far cry from 2013, when newcomer Bevin took on U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary. Same for 2015, when Bevin was running what many thought an underdog campaign for governor against Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.

During last year’s speech, Bevin criticized the bombastic tone of Fancy Farm, where politicians insult their opponents and the audience often tries to shout down the speakers.

“We literally are celebrating the very worst elements of the political process,” Bevin said. “We are celebrating our divisions, and we are doing it in a childish way that frankly does not resolve any of the issues that we face.”

But this year was different. Bevin was surrounded by a fresh crop of Republican state officials, supportive U.S. senators and very few Democrats. He was in a better mood.

In an interview after the speeches on Saturday, Bevin said the event was “less nasty and personal” because there weren’t as many Democrats onstage.

“They have become nasty, personal, vindictive, and it’s unfortunate. They’ve sullied the grand tradition,” he said.

While there weren’t many Democrats onstage, there was still a strong showing in the audience. Many shouted “one-term governor” and booed every mention of the governor’s name.

During Bevin’s first nine months in office, he’s made big moves to roll back the state’s expanded Medicaid system, scrap the state health exchange created under Obamacare and push for traditionally conservative legislation. He also made deep cuts to the state budget.

Isaac Weiss, a Democrat from Louisville who attended Fancy Farm, said Bevin’s first months were a “complete disaster.”

“His several lawsuits show that he’s not really aware of what the Kentucky constitution states,” Weiss said. “It shows that he’s been a failing leader for Kentucky, and I hope that he’s a one-term governor.”

Bevin has tested the boundaries of the governor’s powers by restructuring and removing appointees from boards that run the University of Louisville, the Kentucky Retirement Systems, the Worker’s Compensation Nominating Commission and others. He’s currently being sued by Attorney General Andy Beshear for the moves and is involved in a handful other lawsuits that deal with the scope of the governor’s powers.

The hecklers were out in force at Fancy Farm. J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

The hecklers were out in force at Fancy Farm.

But Republicans such as David Spalding from Fancy Farm think he’s doing a great job.

“I like Bevin,” Spalding said. “I think that he’s got some good views, but I definitely think he’s got an uphill battle to try to rectify some of the stuff that’s going on in our state.”

Bevin is trying to find ways to fix the state’s grossly underfunded pension systems — he pushed the legislature hard during his first year in office to fund them at higher levels. He’s also promised to clean up corruption in Frankfort, which he claims was rampant under previous Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration. He recently approved a $500,000 contract for an outside law firm to look into activities under his predecessor.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover said Bevin’s record during his first nine months in office would encourage Republicans to vote in state House races this fall.

“Even though they may disagree with him from time to time, he’s someone that’s coming in and mixing things up and saying we’ve got to do things differently, we have to do things better in this state if we want better results,” Hoover said.

Hoover would likely become speaker of the 100-member House if Republicans wrest control from Democrats, who have held it since 1921. The GOP needs a net gain of four seats in the chamber to take over.

Meanwhile, Democrats still make up a majority of voters in Kentucky — 51 percent compared with Republicans’ 40 percent. But the state is trending Republican — over the last three months, Republicans registered nearly 9,000 new voters while Democrats picked up just 535.

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who skipped Fancy Farm this year, said his candidates will run against Bevin’s record. Bevin said he’d love that.

“I tell you what, if he does that, we’ll have 70 seats come November,” Bevin said.

WKMS reporter Ebony Clark contributed to this story. 

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.