Republican candidate for governor Robert Goforth | Via screengrab from Goforth campaign ad

By Perry Bacon Jr.

The Democratic gubernatorial primary on May 21 is obviously the bigger story as it’s unclear which candidate will win. But the GOP gubernatorial primary results could be telling as well. Gov. Matt Bevin has one fairly serious Republican opponent in the primary.

And if a significant number of Republicans back state representative Robert Goforth over the governor, that would be another bad sign for the re-election of prospects of Bevin, who got booed at the Kentucky Derby last weekend, is regularly criticized by state legislators from his own party , and according to one polling firm is the most unpopular governor in the country.

There are three Republicans running against Bevin. But Goforth is likely the biggest threat to the incumbent. The pharmacist has had a fairly brief tenure in state politics — winning a special election for his state house seat in eastern Kentucky in February 2018 and then being elected to a full two-year term last November.

What makes him a potentially serious challenger is that Goforth has pumped more than $750,000 of his own money into his campaign this year, basically matching ($814,000) Bevin’s fundraising. Goforth is running ads on television and campaigning across the state.

Goforth has traditional Republican stands on many issues. He is a strong supporter of President Trump, gun rights and abortion limits. At the same time, Goforth is taking on the governor where he may be most vulnerable — Bevin’s policy stands on education and pensions and his tone.

Goforth’s website notes that “Robert supports our public schools 100%, and opposes any public dollars going to establish charter schools.” In addition, the site says, “Pensions are inviolable contracts that cannot be broken.”

In his speeches and commercials, Goforth has defined himself as a leader who “listens more than he lectures” and “leads more than he lambasts” — clear critiques of Bevin.

So can Goforth win? He’s a long shot, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out.

It’s likely that Kentucky Republicans (as compared to Democrats) aren’t very tuned into this primary — the Democrats have three candidates running in a more wide-open contest. So maybe GOP is turnout is fairly low and anti-Bevin Republicans are more motivated to vote than those who support him.

This is not an impossible scenario. Last year state representative Jonathan Shell, who was in the Republican leadership, stunningly lost in the GOP primary to a teacher who campaigned against changes to the state’s pension system.

Gov. Matt Bevin

But Bevin isn’t likely to be totally caught off-guard by Goforth. The governor’s re-election arm has started running ads touting Bevin’s record and alliance with President Trump. These ads don’t mention Goforth, but “Primary Election May 21” flashes across the screen at one point.

This approach allows Bevin to avoid engaging Goforth directly, but also could both remind pro-Bevin Republicans to turn out for the May primary. A group called Putting Kentuckians First that is affiliated with the Republican Governors Association is running pro-Bevin ads on radio ahead of the primary, another potential boost for the governor.

Goforth may not win, but the big question is how much does he lose by. According to the polling firm Morning Consult, about 37 percent of Republicans in Kentucky disapprove of Bevin, with 19 percent saying that they strongly disapprove of the governor. (Fifty-two percent approve of him.) A December Mason-Dixon survey found that 63 percent of Kentucky Republicans approve of the governor, compared to 30 percent who disapprove.

That’s a lot of potential voters for Goforth. It’s likely that some Goforth primary voters will back Bevin in the general election: he will be the only GOP candidate in November. That said if a quarter or a third of Republicans back Goforth, that suggests a sizable bloc of Republicans who are turned off by Bevin and might back the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in the general election.

To conclude, Bevin is vulnerable because the majority of Democrats (72 percent, per Mason-Dixon) and a plurality of independents (50 percent) disapprove of him. Bevin has annoyed some prominent Republicans in the statehouse. May 21 will be a good test for how much Bevin has turned off rank and file Republicans — the people he needs most to win a second term.

Perry Bacon is a national political writer who is based in Louisville. You can contact him at [email protected].