MOUNT VERNON, Ky. — Matt Bevin won the Republican nomination in the Kentucky governor’s race this spring by appealing to the same disillusioned voters who keep Donald Trump and Ben Carson at the top of national polls.
The millionaire investor, largely self-funding his campaign, is an outsider with a similar message to the one resonating in the presidential race: It is good that he has never held elected office because he is not beholden to anyone and can shake up state government.
As Bevin narrowly trails Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway in polls ahead of Tuesday’s off-year election, the battle in the Bluegrass State raises the question: In what has often been described as a year of the outsider, can an outsider actually win?
“I have no favors to pay back. There’s not one person in this state who believes they are going to have a job in my administration. . . . There’s not one person who I’ve promised anything to,” he said after a stop at a diner last week. “Donald Trump is an interesting fellow. . . . Part of what people appreciate about him is the very same thing. He doesn’t owe anybody anything.”
But Bevin, like Trump, has struggled at times to unite the party establishment behind him, burned bridges with local reporters and made a string of rookie mistakes.
On the eve of Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s coming home to Kentucky for a rally with him, for instance, Bevin said he would vote for Carson. “I think the world of Rand,” he told a radio host, but “he would not be the first choice I would make.”
Controversial comments Bevin made during the primary, such as saying he would roll back the state’s Medicaid expansion, now run in attack ads filling the airwaves.
After losing a primary challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by 25 points last year, Bevin turned around and threw his hat into the gubernatorial contest. The two front-runners in that primary tore each other apart with attack ads, and Bevin managed to eke out an 83-vote win in a four-way primary, securing the nomination with 32.9 percent of the 214,000 ballots cast.
Kentucky is a conservative state, but while Republicans dominate the congressional delegation, moderate Democrats continue to succeed at the state level.
Bevin, 48, a father of nine who was an Army captain before going into the investment-management business, comes across as raw and unvarnished.
At the start of the final debate, televised statewide, he declared: “There is going to have to be austerity in the state of Kentucky.” During a sit-down with reporters, he mused about “outsourcing” some functions of state government. Conventional politicians would never use either of those words.
Traversing the state in a golden Cadillac Escalade and running ragged on four hours of sleep, Bevin is trying to capitalize on a pervasive feeling among conservatives that the country is on the wrong track. His stump speech decries the arrest of county clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in Rowan County. Last year, he heavily attacked McConnell for supporting the 1986 immigration bill that gave amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Jerry Little, who owns a used-car dealership, has bumper stickers for Bevin and Trump. “They’re both outsiders,” he said after watching Bevin speak at a Berea diner. “I want a businessman’s approach. We need new people who aren’t career politicians.”
Little, who is on the city council in the town of 14,000, asked Bevin what he thought about Trump. “It’s been good for America,” Bevin replied. “It’s been refreshing and it has created dialogue that we need. Frankly, some of the things he’s saying are also needed at the national level. It is people saying, ‘Let’s talk about the real issues and stop blowing smoke and wrapping everything in plastic.’ ”
But Bevin’s outsider status also means tenuous relations with the party establishment, so crucial to winning in what probably will be a low-turnout election.
Bevin has tried to mend fences with McConnell since winning the gubernatorial primary; the senior senator helped him raise money and offered to campaign for him. A few traditional party donors have stayed on the sidelines and others were slow to get on board after the primary.
“He is our Trump,” said Al Cross, who spent three decades covering politics for the Louisville Courier-Journal and now teaches at the University of Kentucky.
Some in the national party apparatus have also been lukewarm. The Republican Governors Association did not run ads for nearly three weeks at the start of October. In part, it was because they were frustrated that Bevin was not putting in more of his cash or aggressively fundraising. Encouraged by polls showing that the race remained winnable, they have dropped more than $1.5 million in for the homestretch.
Albert Robinson, a Republican state senator who supported Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in the primary, said the governor’s race “has been overshadowed by the presidential campaign.” After watching Bevin campaign in McKee, he said the base has begun to coalesce to stop the Democrat.
While he supports Bevin, he argued that Comer would probably be running away with the election had he won the primary. “Both parties say the race would have been over if Comer had won the nomination,” he said.
As with Trump, Bevin’s sometimes refreshing penchant for going off message has made the race largely a referendum on him.
“I’ve gotten it from both sides,” Bevin said. “I’ve incurred the wrath of all parties concerned.”
Democrat Conway has kept a low public profile, using a fundraising advantage to hammer Bevin on the airwaves. Most of his commercials quote directly from McConnell’s attacks against Bevin last year.
Voters are not particularly enthusiastic about either candidate. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who lost the general election to McConnell last year, said last week that she expects fewer than 1 million of the 3.2 million eligible voters to turn out. She said half as many absentee ballots have been cast compared with this point four years ago.
Like Trump, when questioned about his lack of experience in government, Bevin stresses that he is a fast learner and will surround himself with good people if elected.
Bevin says he would govern more in the tradition of John Brown Jr., who was elected governor in 1979 after building Kentucky Fried Chicken into a major chain. Brown did not come up as a traditional politician and shook up the way business was done in Frankfort, the state capital.
Like Trump, Bevin can be thin-skinned at times. But even more than Trump, he has a toxic relationship with the press.
Angry about the Louisville NBC affiliate’s coverage of his refusal to release his tax returns, Bevin stopped running advertisements on the station. He continued the boycott even after the reporter behind those stories moved to Wisconsin.
After a debate at Eastern Kentucky University, he refused to answer questions from the Lexington Herald-Leader reporter covering the campaign. Bevin became exasperated when the other reporters chastised him for cutting off the media, leading to a testy exchange.
In an interview over a hamburger the next day, Bevin complained that stories beneficial to him go uncovered and accused reporters of being in the tank for Democrats.
“They’re like angry dogs,” he said. “They know I don’t respect their sloppy journalistic abilities or their yelling. . . . They’re not used to people who aren’t either in agreement or trying to get favor from them. I don’t need them.”
In his stump speech, Bevin brags that he will never be popular with editorial boards from the state’s major papers. But, he says, that’s just what Kentucky needs.
As he has traveled the state in the closing days of the campaign, Conway often cites his opponent’s inability to get along with the media. “The biggest issue in this race is who has the temperament to be governor,” Conway said in an interview.
Bevin predicts a solid victory on Tuesday.
“I’m not a politician,” he told voters. “I’m a guy who, like many of you, is fed up with the fact that we are being played for fools time and again by people in both parties. We get sold a bill of goods over and over again.”
“People aren’t suckers,” he added. “Some are, perhaps. But most people inside know when we’re being lied to.”