For two years, when asked if he’ll seek re-election, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has demurred, pushing off his decision.
Surrounded by a gaggle of reporters in Louisville last month, the Republican said he’ll make up his mind about pursuing another four-year term “sometime before January of next year,” according to Insider Louisville. The deadline for candidates to file for office is Jan. 29.
“A traditional candidate would have declared by now,” said Les Fugate, a Republican political observer and senior vice president of RunSwitch Public Relations. “But we learned a long time ago that Matt Bevin is not a traditional candidate.”
Bevin has offered few hints about his political future, though political observers have long noted his frequent trips to Washington, D.C., and other locations frequented by politicians with national ambition. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
If Bevin bails on the Govenor’s Mansion, he would leave state Republicans scrambling for a candidate.
“I think everyone assumes he is running, so it would be a little chaotic,” Fugate said.
There’s even more uncertainty about which Democrats will emerge as frontrunners in the 2019 gubernatorial election.
Some of the biggest names in Kentucky’s Democratic Party have started positioning themselves for a run at the state’s highest office: House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook; Attorney General Andy Beshear; former state auditor Adam Edelen; and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Whether they could beat Bevin is another question. The governor’s comments during debate about a pension overhaul bill earlier this year created deep-seated resentment among many teachers and public employees. But Bevin remains popular among the state’s Republicans, who are more focused on Bevin’s economic development successes, Fugate said.
“He just has to tell the economic story,” Fugate said.
Here are the Democrats who think they can take him on:
What’s he saying?
“I’m getting tremendous support and encouragement from across the state, and because of that encouragement, I’m giving it very serious consideration.”
What’s he doing?
As minority floor leader in the House of Representatives, Adkins was a key figure in the Democratic Party’s outcry over the Republican-backed overhaul of Kentucky’s ailing pension system.
At any teacher rally, you could find Adkins in the center of a sea of red shirts, promising to push back against what he said was the Republican Party’s lack of support for Kentucky’s education system.
Adkins is banking on the attention he received, and the outrage among Kentucky’s educators, to boost his potential gubernatorial bid.
He does not have a challenger in his bid this year for a 16th consecutive term in the House (He first took office in 1987), which gives him more time to build political capital and name identification by campaigning and raising money for other House candidates around the state.
“I’ve never run a statewide race, even though I’ve been in the House for a long time,” he said. “I think I’m a new face for a lot of people in Kentucky.”
Adkins said he’ll make a decision on the gubernatorial race in the coming weeks.
What’s he saying?
“I’m still preparing for what I believe is a pretty big argument on the pension matter, and that’s my sole focus at the moment.”
What’s he doing?
Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, has spent much of his time as attorney general challenging Bevin and the Republican-led legislature in court on a variety of issues, including the pension bill.
Like Adkins, Beshear has capitalized on that moment. Almost as soon as a pension bill was introduced, Beshear declared it unconstitutional and said he would challenge it in court. He quickly followed through on that promise when the bill was signed into law.
In court, Beshear has said the law breaks Kentucky’s inviolable contract with teachers over their pension benefits. He also threw into question the validity of every bill that passed the legislature this year by arguing that Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne’s signature is not valid on the pension bill, which is supposed to be signed by the Speaker of the House. Osborne served as presiding officer after former House Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned his leadership post.
Beshear was sending signals he might be interested in running for governor even before pensions became the issue of the day.
At last year’s Fancy Farm picnic, Beshear released his tax returns in the middle of his speech, alluding to the fact that Bevin has not fulfilled a campaign promise to release his tax returns after he became governor.
What’s he saying?
“I am locked down right now, and it is a very critical time for my business. I expect to take a look later this summer.”
What’s he doing?
After losing his re-election bid for State Auditor in 2015 — “the down-ballot races are largely determined by the race at the top of the ticket,” he explained — Edelen regrouped in the private sector.
He recently launched two initiatives. The first was a solar project in eastern Kentucky where his company hopes to install solar panels on mountaintop removal sites. The project has gotten national attention, including being featured in a documentary, but construction has not started.
The project plays a role on Edelen’s political resume.
“We have to have a candidate that can go toe to toe with (Bevin) on the job front,” he said.
Edelen also has attempted to tap into some of the grassroots energy seen in the Democratic Party after the election of President Donald Trump. In early 2017, with radio host Matt Jones, he launched The New Kentucky Project with hopes of cultivating the next generation of political leaders.
As part of that effort, Edelen and Jones launched a statewide tour last year to talk with voters about issues important to them. They plan to do another tour this year.
The project allows Edelen to travel throughout the state while engaging the Democratic base on the political issues of the day. Kind of like a campaign but without the bumper stickers and yard signs.
Alison Lundergan Grimes
What’s she saying?
“I am considering a run in 2019. Importantly, I am listening to encouragement from people across the commonwealth and hearing the concerns Kentuckians have right now.”
What’s she doing?
One of the early indications that Grimes was considering a run for governor came this year in the form of her medical marijuana task force.
Medical marijuana has no clear connection to Grimes’ responsibilities as Kentucky’s chief elections officer and the custodian of business documents. It is, however, a popular political issue and one that wins support from the Democratic base.
Throughout the country, states have rapidly pushed to legalize marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational purposes, and according to an April poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 93 percent of Americans support the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
The resulting legislation from the task force predictably went nowhere in the 2018 legislative session, but the issue has already been featured in campaigns, including the Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, where every Democratic candidate supported the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
In the meantime, Grimes has continued to weigh in on the issues of the day, particularly her opposition to the Republican tax and pension overhauls that narrowly passed the legislature.
“Kentuckians are ready to make a statement at the ballot box,” Grimes said. “People are suffering at the hands of the Republican majority’s hateful rhetoric against teachers and public employees and horrible tax increases on more than 90 percent of Kentuckians.”
In April, Grimes even traveled to South Carolina to speak at their annual Democratic fundraiser, a connection that could help her in an expensive primary and general election.