Reckoning

Just about a year ago, the governor of Kentucky, Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, found himself about 5000 votes shy of re-election against challenger Andy Beshear, a moderate Democrat and son of former governor Steve Beshear. Bevin, a brash businessman known for big talk and inheriting his family’s wealth, had never held public office but decided in 2014 to run in the Republican primary against Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most powerful GOP politician in the federal government. After losing and making not a few enemies in the Kentucky Republican Party and statewide media with his aggressive style and penchant for dodging questions about his business acumen and tax records, Bevin set his sights on the governor’s mansion in 2015. After winning a brutal primary against his main opponent by fewer than 100 votes from among more than 200,000 cast, Bevin won the general election that November against Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway. Bevin had successfully tied Conway to then-President Barack Obama and painted him as a radical liberal environmental and social activist, and despite polls showing him trailing Conway all the way up to election day, he won by almost 10 percentage points, as offices statewide went Republican.

The following year, the state legislature’s lower house had a Republican majority and the party controlled all levers of state government, while Bevin dismantled the successful kynect health care portal that previous governor Steve Beshear had set up by executive order and in line with the Affordable Care Act. The kynect system had been touted nationwide as one of the best state-level rollouts of the ACA’s state insurance exchanges and 400,000 more Kentuckians had been able to obtain health care insurance through it, a significant feat for a smallish state with one of the most unhealthy populations in the US. After the 2016 election, Bevin and his GOP colleagues in the legislature immediately set about passing a raft of new laws that could be accurately summarized as a conservative wet dream – chief among them repealing prevailing wage rules for state government-funded construction contracts, creating ‘opt in’ rules for union dues (basically ‘right-to-work lite’), banning abortion after 20 weeks and requiring an ultrasound before the procedure, allowing deep reach into local school boards and university governing boards by the governor while attaching performance metrics to new funding for universities, and allowing crimes against police officers to be classified as hate crimes. Many of these bills were passed in a special legislative session in January 2017 with little advance warning and almost no debate.

Having achieved a number of their longstanding legislative priorities a little less than halfway through Bevin’s term in office, the state party and its erstwhile leader settled in for a couple of years of internecine mudslinging, pettiness, and general nonsense. Bevin had few friends in the state GOP outside of his Tea Party allies and his relationship with Mitch McConnell remained frosty at best, meaning DC and the national level party apparatus were not really places he could look for much help if he was in a political jam. Ah, it’s lonely at the top. So one must take to social media feuds and ridiculous lawsuits and insulting your own party and alleging teachers of shirking work and allowing sexual predation of children and declaring the Year of the Bible, and by spring 2019 Bevin was among the nation’s most unpopular governors. That did not stop him from attending the Kentucky State Fair in summer 2019 and dropping in on some young volunteers at the state Democratic Party’s booth in the exhibition hall wearing a garish jacket covered in Donald Trump’s face. The incident blew up as Bevin was accused of harassing the Democratic volunteers and being unnecessarily provocative and incendiary. But what counts as a bridge too far when you’ve already ponied up the money for electric blue outerwear festooned with the image of the Troll-in-Chief?

Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin trolls both Democrats and good taste at the 2019 Kentucky State Fair, image from the Facebook page of Louisville Democrats

In any case, Bevin entered the 2019 general election race against Andy Beshear as a deeply unpopular governor with little in the way of a second-term agenda beyond attacking public school teachers and messing with the state pension fund. When Matt Bevin fell short in his bid for a second term against Beshear by roughly 5000 votes (even as other Republicans won statewide office handily), he alleged that election fraud had occurred on a grand scale and that the state legislature, still dominated by his Republican colleagues, must authorize a recanvass of votes statewide and possibly a recount. And so the Kentucky Republicans valiantly came to the defense of their governor, funded a full recount, protecting the sacred electoral process and rooting out corruption, handing Matt Bevin a come-from-behind victory against his nefarious opponent and the Democratic machine that would undo the will of the people.

Just kidding. They told him to provide actual proof or shut up and accept the election result. And so ended the glorious political career of Matt Bevin. The political lessons here are numerous. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer? Maybe. Don’t be a dick 24/7/365 to everyone in your own party? Probably. Don’t allege election fraud willy nilly and undermine confidence in the system that brought all your buddies to power and kept them there even as you lost because you can’t stay off twitter and keep your foot out of your damn mouth? Certainly.

In many ways, Matt Bevin’s short but tumultuous arc from businessman to failed bid for federal office to the Kentucky governor’s mansion to whiny loser to easily ignored and widely mocked social media personality is perhaps a microcosm of the similar trail blazed by Donald Trump, albeit on a smaller scale than the President. But tonight, as votes continue to be counted in key battlegrounds in multiple states and Trump looks possibly (likely? hopefully?) headed for a loss in his own bid for a second term in office while falling back on a vexatious legal strategy and an absolutely egregious press conference that must be his most dishonest and dangerous few minutes ever in front of a camera, I feel content. The schtick is old and the gig is up. Donald Trump is shortly to go the way of Matt Bevin. Who in the Republican Party but the most ridiculous sycophants and D-list officials ginning themselves up for 15 minutes of infamy is going to leap to defend the astoundingly reckless and idiotic claims of voter fraud that Trump touts relentlessly? This would be absolute political suicide for a party that has pretty much already got what it wanted from Trump (a big tax cut and three Supreme Court seats) and from his violently energetic voting base (most likely retaining control of the Senate and picking up a few House seats). Why go to the mat for a man who has shit all over his own colleagues for four years while displaying a profound ignorance of the position to which he was elected and the massive governmental apparatus he leads? Surely the scions of the Republican Party must be afraid of his supporters, and want to put the genie of frenzied right wing populism back in the bottle because that is, in the long run, bad for business.

When James Comer, the US House Representative in Kentucky’s 1st District in the far western portion of the state and the opponent that Bevin barely bested in the 2015 GOP primary, stated that voters in 2019 “spoke pretty loud and clear with the way the rest of the [Republican] ticket ran versus how Bevin ran,” it was a unmistakable signal that Bevin’s time was up. No one was coming to back him. The question is, who’s gonna draw the short straw and tell Trump the same?