Gov. Matt Bevin | Photo by Joe Sonka

Kentucky is two weeks away from the deadline for candidates to file to run in the statewide races for constitutional offices this year, including those for governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state, commissioner of agriculture and treasurer.

With that deadline rapidly approaching, the primaries in both parties for the gubernatorial race are starting to form, but most eyes are still firmly locked on the sitting governor.

We will soon get a definitive answer to the yearlong “will he, won’t he” debate on whether or not Gov. Matt Bevin will run for re-election this year, and while the signs are now heavily leaning toward his entry, it is still a complete mystery as to who he will choose as his running mate.

The governor gave his most forceful statement to date that he would run while speaking at a large Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner in Frankfort last week, mocking those who have questioned if he would run because he has still not filed the paperwork to raise money for a race or picked who would be his running mate.

The declaration from Bevin that he would file for office — sometime between then and Jan. 29, the last day to do so — only received a light smattering of applause from the audience, mostly consisting of business leaders from around the state.

Bevin’s running mate would appear to be someone other than Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, as Bevin has reached out to several others about joining his ticket, including U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft. Hampton told her local newspaper Monday that she is disappointed to be left hanging in the balance, and Tea Party groups have expressed anger at the possibility that the governor would drop her.

No matter who he chooses as a running mate, Bevin will face at least two primary challengers from his own party who are not currently well-known throughout the state, and perhaps a third challenger that fell just 83 votes short of Bevin in the 2015 primary.

U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville | TOM BERRY/The Mayfield Messenger

Congressman James Comer has not had a cordial relationship with the governor since that razor-tight primary finish, and several weeks ago floated the possibility of running for governor if Bevin chose not to run this year. However, Comer has recently warmed up to the possibility of challenging Bevin in a primary, questioning the governor’s popularity in his own party and his vulnerability to being defeated by a Democrat in the general election this fall.

State Sen. Max Wise has expressed an interest in running on a ticket with Comer if Bevin opts out of running for re-election, but told Insider Louisville that he has not discussed doing so with Comer if the governor decides to enter the race.

National pollster Morning Consult surveys the popularity of governors in each state every quarter, finding that while Bevin’s approval ratings improved slightly in the last three months of 2018 – 34 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove of him – these numbers make him the least popular sitting governor in the country. Mason-Dixon Polling also found Bevin to have similar ratings in a December survey of Kentuckians, with 38 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving of the governor’s performance.

In the Morning Consult poll, just over half of Republicans said they approved of Bevin’s performance as governor, while 34 percent of his own party disapproved. Mason-Dixon found the governor in slightly better shape, with 63 percent of Republicans approving and 30 percent disapproving.

Rep. Robert Goforth | Photo via goforthforky.com

Some of those fissures within the Republican Party showed up in last week’s announcement by state Rep. Robert Goforth that he would primary Bevin. Criticizing the governor’s harsh words toward teachers who protested his public pension reform proposal and his support for charter schools, the political newcomer Goforth called Bevin out-of-touch, arrogant and condescending.

Goforth also echoed criticisms of Bevin that have recently risen from social conservatives regarded expanding gambling, saying that he has broken a campaign pledge by doing nothing to stop the spread of instant racing facilities that closely resemble slot machines.

Republican William Woods of Northern Kentucky also filed to run for governor on Monday, with the political novice presenting a platform of opposition to Bevin’s pension bill, support for abortion rights and support for medical marijuana, with the tax revenue going toward providing every public school with armed guards.

On the Democratic side, it looks like a three-way fight is emerging of big-name candidates, including Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and the former state Auditor Adam Edelen.

The campaign of Beshear, who announced that he was running last summer, reported raising $1.1 million through the end of the year. Though Adkins only announced that he would run after the November elections – and criticized Beshear for raising money that could have gone to Democratic legislative candidates in that cycle – his campaign announced raising $622,567 in just a month and a half, raising almost twice the amount per week as Beshear.

State Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook | Photo by Joe Sonka

Adkins’ strongest base of support will be in his home territory of Eastern Kentucky, where he picked up the bulk of his campaign contributions. The more liberal areas of Louisville and Lexington — where nearly half of the Democratic primary voters reside — are expected to be a key battleground for Beshear and Edelen.

Beshear and Adkins have both struck similar themes in their campaigns so far, offering personality and policy contrasts to Bevin and vowing to protect public schools and teachers. Edelen did the same last week when he officially declared his run for governor with running mate Gill Holland, but added not-so-veiled shots at Beshear about rejecting the same old family dynasties.

If economic policy issues don’t, social issues could provide a clear contrast between the Democratic candidates.

Adkins is a longtime member of the Kentucky General Assembly’s Pro-Life Caucus and voted for the marriage amendment to the state constitution in 2004, whereas Edelen was a relatively early supporter of same-sex marriage among state party leaders and came out forcefully against the latest anti-abortion bill that Republicans are expected to push through in this year’s legislative session. Beshear staked out ground somewhere between the two candidates in an interview with Insider last week, saying that he is still reviewing the constitutionality of that bill before declaring his support or opposition.

Adam Edelen | Courtesy

Asked if he is the most liberal Democratic candidate among the three, Edelen told Insider at his Louisville kickoff event that he rejects ideological labels.

Mason-Dixon also polled how Beshear and Adkins would fare against Bevin in the general election, finding the attorney general 8 percentage points above the governor and Adkins leading by 1 percentage point, despite 58 percent of voters not recognizing the name of the longtime legislative leader. Edelen was not matched up against Bevin in the survey, but was even more unrecognizable than Adkins, with 63 percent of voters not recognizing his name.

Secretary of State Alison Grimes — who just gave birth to her first child last month — has been rumored as a potential candidate for governor or attorney general, but has not yet filed any paperwork to raise money for either race. She was 1 percentage point behind Bevin in the Mason-Dixon poll, but her candidacy in either race may face difficulty from her father’s federal indictment last summer on charges that he directed illegal payments to Grimes’ unsuccessful 2014 U.S. Senate campaign against Mitch McConnell.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear | Screenshot via AG page

Perennial candidate Geoff Young — who has lost by wide margins in five races over the last six years — has also filed to run for governor as a Democrat. Young received less than 2,000 votes and less than 2 percent of the vote last year in the Democratic primary for the Sixth Congressional District.

While polls find that Bevin’s popularity is low and a Democrat could be competitive in a general election race, Kentucky has heavily trended Republican over the past decade and still gives President Donald Trump high marks.

Political observers have pointed to Trump’s visits to Kentucky in the final stage of the congressional race between Rep. Andy Barr and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath last year as the difference maker that tipped that race, and similar trips to the state this year on behalf of Bevin — who reportedly has a good relationship with the president — could boost the governor’s chances at re-election if Trump remains popular.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]