This article first appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
I’ve had my political differences with Matt Bevin.
So have several Kentucky Republicans who shed sweat, tears, and resources for President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Bevin, after all, bragged about opposing Bush in the 2004 general election and infamously refused to endorse McConnell as Kentucky’s senior senator sought to liberate the “Majority Leader” plaque from Harry Reid’s door in 2014. In two important elections, Bevin prevaricated as his fellow Republicans scrapped mightily to achieve conservative governance in Washington D.C.
These transgressions aside, Bevin’s apparent victory over Jamie Comer, Hal Heiner, and Will T. Scott in the Republican primary for governor shows his improvement as a candidate since losing in 2014. I expect Kentucky’s Republican leadership—including McConnell—to back him against Democrat Jack Conway, as they fully understand the value of Republicans hanging together in Frankfort.
Some of the nicest words uttered about Bevin in the last two years came from McConnell at the statewide Republican Lincoln Dinner last June, when McConnell asked his defeated foe to stand and be recognized.
“(Matt Bevin) made me a better candidate going into November,” McConnell said from the podium, as Bevin basked in roaring applause from hundreds of influential Republicans.
As his party’s nominee for governor, it is now Bevin’s responsibility to unify the GOP and expand his campaign beyond the small sliver of Republicans that delivered him about one-third of the vote in each of his two races. In this, he would be wise to follow the recent examples set by McConnell.
In 2010, McConnell quickly teamed with Rand Paul following a bruising primary in which McConnell supported Paul’s opponent. And in 2014, McConnell did what a party nominee is supposed to do in offering Bevin a gracious-if-unrequited embrace.
Bevin’s evolution and trajectory as a candidate indicate his instincts are likely good enough to follow these examples. Comer, Heiner, and Scott are already publicly on board to help him. Comer, in fact, gave one of the classiest concession speeches in recent memory, no small thing when one comes up 83 votes short out of 214,187 cast.
According to the Survey USA Bluegrass Poll, which was far more accurate in the 2015 primary than in 2014’s general election, Bevin starts behind Democratic nominee Jack Conway by 11 points, 48 percent to 37 percent. Private polling, however, shows the Republican Party with a clear generic advantage. The political environment exists for Bevin to catch up with Conway.
If Bevin plays the primary aftermath as well as he played the tricky politics of the race itself, he will have a unified Republican Party backing his candidacy, one capable of helping win the governor’s mansion for only the second time in four decades.
Primary election night itself was one of the most thrilling in Kentucky history. At varying times, the top three candidates each thought they were headed in the right direction. As it turned out, Bevin ran steady throughout, Heiner faded down the stretch, and Comer needed another furlong after staging a dramatic comeback that fell just short. A few nuggets stand out as we await the recanvass:
- Losing Western Kentucky’s Daviess and Ohio Counties dashed Comer’s chances. These farm-centric counties should have been fertile ground for an agriculture commissioner, but they instead put Bevin over the top by an 822 vote margin. Bevin invested in a late television push in the Evansville media market, and Owensboro-area voters responded.
- Northern Kentucky’s Boone, Kenton, and Campbell turned out for Bevin. These counties exceeded their historical turnout for a gubernatorial primary to give Bevin a crushing 5,331 vote win over Comer, despite his popular Northern Kentucky running mate. Bevin’s was the only campaign to play organizationally here while also investing in direct mail and meaningful television advertising.
- Comer’s anemic performance in Louisville was staggering. Jefferson County, home to the Kentucky State Fair, the state’s biggest agriculture showcase, gave Comer just 4,430 votes, or 12.62 percent. Louisville voters punished Comer, who at times derided his opponents for being wealthy denizens of Kentucky’s largest city. Stories regarding the incendiary allegations against Comer appeared mostly in the greater Louisville media market, where he received just 21.3 percent of the vote.As the Courier-Journal reported, Louisville will send a resident to the governor’s mansion for the first time in 60 years no matter November’s outcome.
- Bevin’s vote share was smaller in 2015 than 2014, but he got a better result. In the 2014 primary against McConnell, Bevin received 35.42% of the vote versus 32.91% last Tuesday. He received 55,308 fewer votes this year than last. But a four-way race with a smaller turnout helped him squeak out a win.
- Bevin’s direct mail and TV ads were really good. Post-primary props to Scott Hobbs and Jason Hebert at The Political Firm for a smart direct mail campaign, and Jason Miller’s Jamestown Associates for producing memorable television ads. Bevin had no Super PAC support, so his campaign’s paid media had to be very effective to overcome being outspent by millions of dollars. Mission accomplished for Bevin’s consulting crew, led by campaign manager Ben Hartman.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this column contains hyperlinked citations.