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So here in Kentucky we had a real barnburner of a primary. I mean that somewhat literally. There’s an old joke we often attribute to Mark Twain–that when the world ends, the best place to be is in Kentucky, because everything happens here 20 years later. Well, the rest of the South went Republican in 1996. Here we are, 20 years later, and Kentucky was going to flip–we’d take the House and the Governor’s mansion–and then this happened.
First, a few things you should know about Kentucky. For starters, we aren’t a Republican state. Yeah, the senators are Republicans, and 5 of the 6 Representatives are Republicans, but at the state level everything is Democrats. The executive branch is 4:1 Democrats. The House is Democratic, and the only reason the Senate is Republican is because of animosity between Democrats that led to a palace coup in 1996, a story I told last year.
I live in the Republican heart of District 6, the county where Andy Barr runs up the totals he needs to counteract Lexington’s Democrats; and last election cycle there wasn’t a single Republican running for anything below Statehouse (who was promptly creamed by a woman even Democrats can’t stand). The Republican Party of Kentucky is really the McConnell for Senate Campaign, which can be repurposed when McConnell doesn’t need it, and which has coattails when he does. Truly, it isn’t that much different from when Henry Clay ran the state and basically selected the state officers and his junior senator.
That changed in 2010 with the Paul for Senate campaign. Now, Paul still relies on the McConnell campaign for support (if you want to know why they are friends, this is probably part of the reason), but he does have a certain amount of independence with his Tea Party-ish support apparatus. Here at the University, we have the College Republicans and the Young Americans for Liberty, and the former are about four times the size of the latter. They often piggyback on each others’ events, by which I mean the CRs invite the YALers to our events–I sponsor the CRs, which are the fastest growing club in Kentucky, and possibly the whole USA right now: I’m very proud. Here’s a picture of them being awesome, and to the immediate left of the CR with his hands up is one of the YALers):
The relationship between the Tea Party and the McConnell campaign is very similar.
So now we kind of have two Republican parties in the state. This is also not new. Back in the days of Happy Chandler and Alben Barkley, the joke went that, sure we had Republicans in the state–they were the Chandler Democrats.
The second thing you need to know is that, much like Gaul, All Kentucky is divided into three parts: Eastern, Western, and the Golden Triangle. Eastern Kentucky is the Appalachian Mountains region of the state, and extends toward the Tennessee Border and a bit farther west towards Bowling Green. It’s the home of deep shaft coal mining, debates about mountain top removal, and Harlan County–along with Owlesy and Martin County, the poorest region of the Country. There are two jobs in Eastern Kentucky: coal mining and government, and coal mining is in decline. It’s not an accident that Hal Rodgers, chair of the US House Appropriations Committee, keeps money flowing to his home district. Western Kentucky picks up a bit, east of Bowling Green, and continues across the south of the state and then back up the Ohio River to just south of Louisville. If Eastern Kentucky was populated by the Scots-Irish Whigs who were fervently Unionist, Western Kentucky was populated by the Southern slaveowners, and provided a great many soldiers to the South. Western Kentucky is the land of cotton and tobacco, and open pit mining. It has commerce along the river, tourism at the Land Between the Lakes, Atomic City outside Paducah, and it also includes Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. Finally, the Golden Triangle is the part of the state that begins in Louisville, follows I-64 east to Lexington, and then I-64 north to Cincinnati. The triangle is closed by the Ohio River. Half the population and half the economic activity of the state happens here, and while the suburbs and smaller towns are heavily Republican (especially the Cincinnati and Louisville suburbs–at least after you get out of Jefferson County), the cities themselves lean Democratic. The Golden Triangle looks a lot like America as a whole in terms of its industry and economy, including manufacturing in Louisville and banking in Lexington. These three parts of the state don’t like each other.
Rand Paul’s base is the West, McConnell’s is the Golden Triangle, and the East is the Red-headed stepchild of Kentucky (and the place probably most likely to vote for the first Democrat who promises to stop the war on coal).
So it isn’t surprising that the Kentucky GOP governor’s primary drew a challenger from each district: Hal Heiner from Louisville and the Golden Triangle (he was a councilmember in Louisville and ran for mayor in 2010), James Comer from the East (previously the Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and the token statewide Republican), and Matt Bevin from the West (a Louisville businessman, but a Paulite -even though Paul for reasons stated above stayed neutral). OK, technically there was also Will Scott, another Eastern Kentucky candidate, but he was small.
Bevin had previously run for Senate against McConnell, and we’re all aware of how that went. McConnell beat him quite easily, because as established, he’s the Republican Party of Kentucky, our contemporary Henry Clay. And Bevin was also a bit of a ego candidate. He largely self-financed his campaign. Heiner had some donor support, but he also self-funded. Comer was the leading candidate with the largest donor support (probably because he was the token statewide Republican). So, most people focused on Heiner and Comer.
Cards on the table–I backed Comer on the grounds that he wanted to do something different in Eastern Kentucky to attract economic development besides the usual Chamber of Commerce tax zones that Heiner and Bevin pitched. Industrial hemp didn’t excite me much, but things like a tourism trail in the mountains similar to the Bourbon Trail and Horse Trail seemed like plausible ideas. Also, he singlehandedly cleaned up the Agriculture Cabinet after the corruption of Richie Farmer, and made Republicans look good statewide. Such should be rewarded.
I don’t know when things went sideways, and I saw some non-CoC stuff going back and forth between Heiner and Comer, but Heiner drew the brunt of the blame. Heiner’s supporters dug up an old girlfriend of Comer’s who claimed that he’d beat her and procured an abortion for her (evidence for which she had, but was conveniently unable to get to before the election … ) when they were students at Western Kentucky back in the day. It got so bad that it became common knowledge that in the event that Heiner won, he’d have to replace his Lieutenant Governor to make amends with everyone Heiner’s negative attacks (made through that LG) had offended. The expectation was that Comer would win, the scandal would collapse for lack of evidence, and we’d put the party back together. It’s 20 years after 1996, this is the year we take the Governor’s mansion and the House and Senate both.
Then the astonishing happened: Matt Bevin surged from behind–possibly on the strength of his “clean candidate” image (I’m unconvinced), including his famous last-week “Food Fight” ad.
Heiner collapsed except in his base in Louisville and a handful of Eastern counties, Bevin took the rest of the Mountain East (Comer took the foothills and South) and the Golden Triangle, and then split the West with Comer. Coming out of the primary, Bevin led with 83 votes.
There are no runoffs or recounts in Kentucky–we can recanvass, but the machines verify the results on election night, so unsurprisingly, when the recanvass was completed last night, Bevin still held his 83 vote lead. Comer conceded this morning.
Now that Bevin has won, there are three concerns. First, McConnell already raked Bevins over the coals, and those attacks are still out there: that he was less than honest about his education and that he accepted bailouts for his main business (Bevin Bros.–a bell manufacturing company that goes back to 1832). We can expect those attacks to be revived by Jack Conway, the Democratic Attorney General who is running for Governor. Second, Bevin burned a lot of bridges with his attacks on McConnell, who, remember, is the modern Henry Clay and King of Kentucky. McConnell is a professional, so I expect him to bury the hatchet and put the power of his campaign behind Bevin. It remains to be seen how much the voters will do this.
The last concern, though, is that Bevin’s plans are–charitably–Western Kentucky-centric, and less charitably, completely unmoored from the reality of the state. The Golden Triangle leans Democratic, so for a Republican to win, he needs solid support in both the East and the West and to hold his own in the suburbs.
Bevin’s plan is to bust the Unions of Kentucky, something county officials have been trying to do for years in this state with only limited success. We’re talking full right-to-work, not just taking on the public sector unions. He also wants to roll back state boards and government employment to 2007 levels. This will hurt Eastern Kentucky pretty badly. As for his plans to overhaul the state retirement system (which does badly need an overhaul), converting the KRS (Kentucky Retirement System, and the related but distinct KTRS for teachers) has been a goal of Republicans for a decade, they just barely started making progress on it, and Bevin is going to scrap all of that to convert everything to a 401k over time, and in the interim increase employee contributions–an act of dubious legality because we have the “Ironclad Oath” here that the retirement system cannot be overthrown.
I am in general favor of these reforms, don’t get me wrong, and I applaud Bevin for attacking them directly. But so were the other guys, and they at least had something on the other end. The reason Heiner and Comer both talked about building up Eastern Kentucky is because if we shutter the state government out there, the whole place would be out of work. So we need some kind of transition in place, and tax cuts won’t do it (we’ve tried). Similarly, opposing the war on coal is great, but the coal in Eastern Kentucky is petering out anyway. Likewise, while I applaud opposition to Obamacare, Kentucky’s success here is overstated. While KYNect may have been the only exchange to work, most of our expansion was Medicaid, which is a terrible program. This is going to cause issues in the Triangle. Comer’s plan was to find ways to get people off Medicaid, allowing for KYNect to be shut down in the future.
I am moderately concerned this is going to be a repeat of Sharon Angle, Richard Mourdock, or–given the divisions that led to it–Todd Akin. (And SoCon though I am, I’m not sure how thrilled I am with Bevin running around announcing he’s a Christian Conservative. Dear God, let there not be anything in his past more embarrassing than an embellished resume.)
It’s our moment. We’re apparently going to try for a revolution in Kentucky, and I’ll support it as best I can. Here we are with the candidate, back when he was a wildcard.
Let’s go.Published in