Frankfort, Ky. — The president just put out a tweet for me,” says Governor Matt Bevin as he climbs aboard the Super King Air 200 that serves as Kentucky’s twin-turboprop version of Air Force One. It’s May 21 — primary day in the Bluegrass State — and President Trump has taken to Twitter: “To the great people of Kentucky, please go out and vote for Matt Bevin today. Very important. He has done a fantastic job for you and America!” Bevin appreciates the words: “That was very nice of him. He’s such a good guy.”
Moments later, we’re lifting off from the airport in Frankfort and flying above the dome of the state capitol, on our way to Bevin’s lunchtime speech at an economic-development conference in Somerset, some 80 miles to the south. If Bevin is nervous about the primary, he doesn’t show it, even though the polling firm Morning Consult has dubbed him “the country’s least popular governor,” with an approval rating of just 33 percent. That evening, when Bevin is back at the governor’s mansion and the day’s returns come in, he’ll learn that Republicans have renominated him as their candidate. Yet they’ll give him only 51 percent of their support, splitting the rest of their votes among three challengers. Bevin actually lost in about 30 counties, mostly in the southeastern part of the state. A headline in The Hill summed it up this way: “Trump-backed Kentucky governor narrowly survives primary.”
Now Democrats are dreaming of a big upset in a deep-red state. If they can beat Bevin in November, they’ll create a sense of momentum on the eve of the 2020 election. Kentucky is one of three states to elect a governor in the odd-numbered year before a presidential contest (the others are Louisiana and Mississippi). This quirk of the political calendar means that Kentucky stands to receive an outsized share of attention this summer and fall as reporters and pundits watch Bevin’s race, pick apart what happens, and search for signs of what’s to come. In a profession prone to gasbaggery, they’ll gather a scarce resource: new data. On the night of November 5 and in the days that follow, they’ll use it to opine on what the fate of Bevin reveals about the reelection prospects of Trump.
The political class may be especially disposed to overinterpret Kentucky’s results in 2019, because four years ago it arguably underinterpreted them: Few saw Bevin’s come-from-behind performance in 2015 as foreshadowing the surprise of Trump in 2016. “It’s easy in hindsight to make these connections,” says the governor on the short flight to Somerset. He ticks off the similarities: Like Trump, he has a background in business. He was running for what would become his first political office. Much of his party’s establishment opposed him. Trump’s campaign, he says, “was a scaled-up version of what I had done in 2015.”
Whatever Bevin’s story teaches about Trump, however, it may say even more about the future of conservatism at a time when the word’s very meaning is up for grabs. His governorship has tested the viability of an agenda of labor-market and entitlement reforms, and his victory or defeat later this year will help answer the question of whether a tea-party upstart can shift from populist protester to accomplished government executive.
The 52-year-old Matthew Griswold Bevin was born in Denver and grew up mostly in rural New Hampshire, close to the border with Canada. He participated in 4-H and graduated from a Christian high school across the state line, in Maine. For college, he went to Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he enrolled in ROTC. That led to a commission in the Army and an assignment to a post in Kentucky. He says he liked the state so much he decided that he wanted to live there. After leaving active duty in 1993, Bevin became a successful investor. He and his wife moved to Louisville and didn’t think much about politics.
Work kept him busy. So did raising a family that grew to include five children. Around 2007, Bevin says, he took his kids to a park. His daughters became fast friends with a girl who was about their age. Bevin learned that she was in foster care — and inquired about adopting her. “We knew how to handle a bunch of kids,” he says. Why not add a sixth? “So we started the process. It went on and on and on.” He sent in fingerprints, submitted to home inspections, and even attended parenting classes. After more than a year, foster-care officials rejected his application. “They said that five children were enough. We were told that it’s better for her to be in an institutional environment than to be the sixth child in a family.” He recounts the story calmly, but clearly the experience angers him, more than a decade later. (He doesn’t know what happened to the girl, who would be an adult today.)
Recognizing that they couldn’t adopt a child in Kentucky, the Bevins looked abroad. They traveled to Ethiopia for the purpose of bringing home an orphan. They came back with four. “We figured that there wasn’t a big difference between six kids and nine.” Meanwhile, Bevin began to think seriously about public policy for the first time, starting with the rules of adoption but soon expanding into other areas, such as runaway entitlement spending. He says that although he always has enjoyed reading political biographies — today in speeches, he has a habit of quoting the likes of Churchill, Jefferson, and Lincoln — the idea of running for office hadn’t occurred to him before this moment: “In college, I never even took a political-science course.”
Perhaps if he had, he would have heard the line about the perils of taking on an incumbent in your own party: If you strike at the king, you have to kill the king. Bevin embarked on a quixotic quest, challenging Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s most powerful Republican, in the GOP primary in 2014. At a time when tea-party conservatives posed occasional threats to political veterans, Bevin railed against careerist corruption and self-funded much of his campaign. McConnell trounced him, 60 percent to 35 percent.
Bevin had failed to kill the king, but he refused to quit the arena, declaring his candidacy for governor in 2015. Almost exactly a year after his shellacking by McConnell, and in a primary field that included three major candidates, Bevin eked out an 83-vote victory. “The two establishment Republicans destroyed each other,” says Les Fugate, a GOP strategist in the state. “Bevin ran up the middle and won.” Next came the general election. Bevin slipped into his familiar role as the underdog, but Republicans unified behind him. Even McConnell endorsed him. Bevin called for passing right-to-work legislation, cutting taxes and regulations, and fixing the state’s public pensions, which at the time ranked behind only Illinois for unfunded obligations, according to an analysis in the Wall Street Journal. Shortly before the election, polls suggested that he would lose to Democrat Jack Conway, the attorney general. Instead, he prevailed by nearly nine points.
Bevin became just the third Republican to win Kentucky’s governorship in the post–WWII period — and when he took the oath of office in 2016, he confronted the only legislative chamber in the entire South still controlled by Democrats. That spring, Kentucky’s house of representatives blocked most of his agenda. Yet he did begin to streamline adoptions and start to slash regulations. Even today, he and many of his aides routinely wear red lapel pins that display golden scissors to symbolize their commitment to cutting red tape. Bevin likes to bring up the cosmetology license that the state once required for hair-braiding. “We got rid of that,” he says. “Who goes back for the second or third bad weave?” In other words, the market for hair-braiding can regulate itself without the interference of a bureaucrat in Frankfort. A website maintained by the state claims that as of last April, Bevin had “repealed or amended” 27 percent of Kentucky’s administrative regulations.
In the summer of 2016, following that first legislative session, Bevin campaigned to elect more Republicans to the statehouse. “I didn’t want to have one arm tied behind my back. Who’d want to be that governor?” he says. “I did more than a hundred town halls, meet-and-greets, and fundraisers on behalf of candidates.” He also started to sense that the GOP’s nomination of Trump was firing up Kentucky voters, including longtime Democrats. At an Aspen Institute forum moderated by art-gallery owner Ann Korologos on August 16, Bevin sounded the themes of conservative populism, urging his well-heeled audience to talk to ordinary Americans about their workaday concerns and whether they trusted elites. “Go into a Dollar General,” he said. Then Korologos interrupted: “We don’t have Dollar General in Aspen.” The crowd laughed and Bevin smiled, but he quickly returned to his point. “How about this? Ask the person who removes the chocks from the wheel of your plane when you fly out of here.” He went on: “People are going to be shocked come November.” In the election, Trump carried Kentucky by a margin of nearly two to one and Republicans secured supermajorities in the state’s house and senate.
For Republicans, the legislative session that following January felt like a bursting dam, as lawmakers passed and Bevin signed a series of conservative reforms that Democrats previously had obstructed. Almost immediately, they made Kentucky a right-to-work state, repealed prevailing-wage laws, and approved pro-life bills. “We’d never seen anything like it before,” says Jim Waters, head of the Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank. More reforms followed: everything from making it a hate crime to shoot a police officer to permitting public schools to sponsor courses in biblical literacy.
The biggest changes were economic. Kentucky lowered its state income tax. Unemployment dropped and investments poured in. On the Tax Foundation’s state-by-state ranking of business-tax climates, Kentucky jumped from No. 39 to No. 23. CEOs spoke openly about Bevin’s reforms. Craig Bouchard of Braidy Industries, for example, credited the new right-to-work law with his company’s decision to open a $1.3 billion aluminum mill in the depressed coal-country city of Ashland.
It looks like a pretty good record. So why isn’t Bevin more popular? A common explanation involves what the Associated Press calls his “combative style.” He doesn’t hesitate to criticize fellow Republicans, who then grumble. Sometimes his statements spark wider controversies. Last year, for example, he apologized for saying that school closings caused by teacher strikes would leave children vulnerable to sexual abuse at home. In April, he seemed to make a similar mistake when he blamed the shooting of a seven-year-old girl on school shutdowns forced by teacher “sickouts,” i.e., teachers who lied about illnesses and used their sick days to protest his pension-reform proposals.
And that may be the root of the problem: Bevin’s determination to address Kentucky’s pension crisis. “Financial issues are tough,” says the governor. “The easiest path is to do nothing.” A generation ago, Kentucky’s public-pension funds were relatively healthy. Since then, they’ve suffered from a rash of retirements, poor returns on investments, and funding shortages. Estimates on the unfunded liabilities vary, but Bevin believes that they may amount to as much as $84 billion. The governor has proposed the standard solutions, such as gradually moving away from defined-benefit plans and toward defined-contribution alternatives, and he has met with the usual resistance from public-employee unions that would rather receive a blank check from taxpayers. Bevin’s loudest critics are Kentucky’s powerful teachers’ unions, whose leaders also don’t like the fact that Bevin signed a bill to permit charter schools, which previously weren’t allowed in the state. (None have opened, though, because the legislature has refused to create a funding mechanism. “It will happen,” promises Bevin. “Give me time.”)
The irony of this hostility is that the unions are attacking a governor who seeks to make teacher pensions solvent, and they’re backing Democrats who don’t appear to share this concern. Bevin’s opponent this fall is Attorney General Andy Beshear. He’s the son of Steve Beshear, the Democrat who preceded Bevin as governor and whose budgets shorted the pension funds. The younger Beshear, for his part, has proposed to shore up the pensions in part by legalizing recreational marijuana and taxing it. Bevin scoffs: “For that to work, everybody in Kentucky would have to smoke pot for 600 years.” He whips out this line at a town-hall meeting in Versailles. While Bevin endorses the idea of medical marijuana for Kentucky, he also warns against wider use, citing Tell Your Children, the recently published anti-marijuana book by Alex Berenson.
Ultimately, says Bevin, the answer to the pension problem and Kentucky’s other travails will come down to one thing: “We have to grow the economy and have more people here, paying taxes.” In a second term, he hopes to pursue new reforms on taxes (he prefers taxing consumption to taxing income), lawsuits (“in a powerful way”), and the judiciary (many of Kentucky’s elected judges, he says, “have no business being judges”). He says he’s not done with adoption. And he even favors moving Kentucky’s off-year elections to even-numbered years, because local governments would save money.
Between now and November, he’ll make his case in a state where Democrats still outnumber Republicans among registered voters, but also where Trump enjoys some of his strongest support. Bevin’s first television ad of the year aired on May 4 during the Kentucky Derby. It highlighted his ties to Trump. Perhaps a few more presidential tweets plus a rally or two will help earn a second term for the man who is supposedly America’s least popular governor.
As for his future beyond that, Bevin refuses to rule out anything. Would he seek another office after a second term concluded in 2024? “I miss the private sector,” he says. “But I love this country more than I need an extra buck.”
This article appears as “Matt Bevin, Tea-Party Governor” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.