FANCY FARM, Ky. – For all its hoopla, the political speaking at the Fancy Farm Picnic rarely has much effect on statewide elections. But it always provides a unique measurement of the candidates, their campaigns and their prospects, and this year’s version told us some meaningful things about Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and his challenger, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear.
The speaking has a major player not on the stage: the raucous crowd. It can throw speakers off, but it can also give them moxie. This year, perhaps reflecting Bevin’s weakness among Republicans, Democrats did a better job turning out chanters, yellers, and sign-wavers. That helped Beshear, who is usually a stiff, wooden speaker with weak timbre. He seemed to draw strength from the crowd, matched up well with the incumbent, and beat expectations. For a challenger, that’s a gain.
But the theme of Beshear’s nominally front-running campaign is still “I am not Matt Bevin,” and it depends on teachers and their desire to punish the governor who has disparaged them. “Matt Bevin is the single greatest threat to public education we’ve ever seen,” Beshear declared with typical Fancy Farm hyperbole. Beyond that, his argument for himself was a medley of issues that seem short of saliency, such as drug-company profiteering.
Bevin spoke extemporaneously, as he almost always does, but had a more pointed sales pitch. It could be reduced to three words: abortion, economy, Trump.
His running mate, state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, called Beshear “Abortion Andy,” and we will surely hear that again. This week in Owensboro, a hotbed of anti-abortion activism, Bevin “will ceremonially sign four pro-life bills,” a taxpayer-paid press release from his office announced Tuesday.
Abortion has never played a major role in a Kentucky gubernatorial election, but no governor has crusaded against it like Bevin. His polls probably show that a lot of people for whom abortion is a voting issue are not for him, so he’s hammering on it to win them back. Beshear countered this week by starting his TV ad campaign with a spot that emphasizes his faith, and the ministers in his family.
Voters who aren’t driven by social issues usually vote their pocketbooks, and Kentucky’s unemployment is the lowest on record, so Bevin has evidence for his line, “Do you want to keep going forward, or do you want to go backwards?”
But will people buy any sales pitch from a governor who has dug himself such a hole with his reckless comments that he was the most unpopular governor in America in the first half of the year?
If voters have stopped listening to Bevin, perhaps they will listen to President Trump, who dominates the national conversation and has maintained his support in Kentucky for more than a year and a half, most recently getting 55 percent approval and 40 percent disapproval.
Bevin has said Trump will campaign for him at least twice, and he appears to be counting on the president to close the sale, much as Trump did for 6th District U.S. Rep. Andy Barr last fall. Bevin and Alvarado didn’t mention Trump until very near the end of their speeches. For them, Trump is the exclamation mark of their argument.
We’ll get several chances to compare Bevin and Beshear side by side. They’ve agreed to five televised debates in October, and other joint appearances are likely. It’s unusual for an incumbent to give a challenger that many debates, but Bevin is an effective debater, and he’s probably trailing.
Bevin may think he can talk rings around Beshear, but the attorney general did well in their first big face-off, at the Kentucky Farm Bureau, and self-confidence is important in such encounters. In 1995, when public campaign financing led Democrat Paul Patton and Republican Larry Forgy to have 35 joint appearances, Forgy started out as the much better debater. But after the first few go-rounds, Patton gained confidence and matched up well with Forgy, beating expectations and winning narrowly.
The other marquee race on the Nov. 5 ballot is for attorney general, between Democrat Greg Stumbo, who held the office in 2004-07 between stints as leader of the state House; and Daniel Cameron, who has never run for public office but is the protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Cameron is the first African American nominated for statewide office in his own right, and he told the crowd, “When I was growing up, it was hard to imagine a guy who looked like me . . . standing on this stage and running to be the chief law-enforcement officer here in Kentucky.”
But his main points were Stumbo’s “blocking pro-life legislation” and trying to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, and that Stumbo “won’t stand up and take responsibility for his own poor decisions.” He didn’t mention a dispute over support for a child Stumbo fathered out of wedlock, or other charges he made in an online video a few days earlier, but will surely remind voters of them, with campaign money generated by McConnell’s fundraising machine.
Stumbo didn’t respond to those jabs, but alluded to the fact that Cameron won’t have the required eight years as an attorney until less than a month before the election: “The attorney general’s office is always open to children . . . we explain what we do . . . but Daniel, we don’t let children run the thing.” Cameron is 33; Stumbo will turn 68 next week. Looks like they’re going to keep it personal.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column first appeared at KyForward.com.