During the election-eve rally at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Trump urged the crowd to back Bevin, touting the state’s economy and praising the embattled governor for making decisions during his time in office that set up the state “to be a rocket ship in the future.”
“We’re sending a signal by doing that to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world, that the Republican Party, you know what we stand for,” Trump said. During his turn on the stage, Bevin too urged rallygoers to send a message to Washington: “That Kentucky is bleeding red and that we support to the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump!”
Referencing the governor’s aggressive personality and persistent calls to the White House, Trump added, “He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want!”
Trump also used his speech to criticize the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, calling it a “deranged, hyperpartisan impeachment witch hunt.”
In the crowd standing behind him were several supporters wearing white T-shirts bearing the words, “Read the transcript!”
Although all three Republicans vying for governor in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana have closely allied themselves with the president, Bevin has been the most adept at adopting brash Trumpian tactics. The governor’s abrasive demeanor has led to high-profile clashes with teacher unions, the media and state legislators from his own party.
Republicans hope Trump’s presence in Kentucky in the final hours before Tuesday’s election will inject enough momentum to boost Bevin over Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general and son of a former governor.
“This guy, Beshear, is a major leftie,” Trump said at Monday’s rally. “You know that, right?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who will be on the ballot next year — has set aside any lingering tensions from a contentious Senate primary against Bevin in 2014 and has tapped his extensive political network to aid the struggling governor in his reelection bid.
“If Bevin wins, he’s got Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell to thank,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is known to have a poor relationship with Bevin and entertained a primary challenge against him earlier this year.
Unprompted, Comer noted that his internal polling last year showed Trump with a 69 percent approval rating in his western Kentucky district, while Bevin was at 29 percent. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state by 30 percentage points in 2016.
But the increasingly polarized and nationalized governor’s race has helped Bevin, 52, pull even in public and internal campaign polling as he has zeroed in on his alliance with Trump and, in the final weeks of the race, the Democratic-led House’s impeachment probe against him.
Democrats hope the anti-Bevin fervor, as well as Beshear’s focus on state issues, will help the 41-year-old triumph over the governor Tuesday.
“Matt Bevin is kind of the antithesis of any politician I’ve ever been around in that he seems to get up every day and decides, ‘Well, who am I going to piss off today?’ ” said Rep. John Yarmuth, the sole Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.
Republicans are aware of the political narratives that off-year elections can carry, and senior party officials have worked for months to disabuse any notion that a loss in ruby-red Kentucky could forecast a difficult environment for Republicans in 2020.
McConnell has spoken with Trump about Bevin’s race multiple times, according to two people familiar with the calls who spoke on the condition of anonymity to confirm private conversations.
The majority leader’s outreach to the White House dates to at least April, when McConnell warned Trump during a phone call that whether or not the president had any impact on Bevin’s reelection, a Republican loss would be interpreted as a sign of political weakness ahead of an election year, said one of the people with knowledge of the conversation. That was despite McConnell’s argument to Trump that off-year gubernatorial races are often overinterpreted for any political implications.
Indeed, Trump made the race to reelect Bevin about him, telling the crowd: “If you lose, it sends a really bad message … you can’t let that happen to me.”
Vice President Pence, who is close with Bevin because of their shared connection as Republican governors, campaigned with him in southeastern Kentucky on Friday. Bevin is also a regular White House visitor, attending events on workforce development and criminal justice restructuring.
An Oct. 16 Mason-Dixon poll of 625 likely voters showed Bevin and Beshear dead even at 46 percent. Although Bevin’s job approval rating remains underwater at 45 percent, compared with 48 percent disapproval, that is an improvement in recent months.
His internal figures have shown a similar trajectory. Down by as many as 15 points against Beshear in June, Bevin has seen his numbers rise since then, with a spike of about a half-dozen points in July coinciding with Democrat Amy McGrath’s nationally noticed announcement that she would challenge McConnell next November, according to two GOP operatives familiar with the figures.
Bevin’s numbers have gradually risen since September, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the start of an impeachment inquiry into Trump and his campaign formally launched an ad campaign against Beshear.
Still, other Republicans cautioned against reading too much into the results should Bevin fall short Tuesday.
If Bevin loses despite the president’s last-minute efforts, “it has nothing to do with Trump,” Comer said. “It’s just Bevin.”
Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.