(AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Meet the Republican Mitch McConnell called a "pathological liar": How Gov.-elect Matt Bevin decimated Kentucky Democrats

How did a far-right Tea Partyer stun Kentucky Democrats and win the governorship? Here's the inside story


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Rae Hodge
November 5, 2015 3:20AM (UTC)

After delivering a cannon blast to Democratic rivals for the Kentucky governorship, Matt Bevin and Jenean Hampton have captured the keys to the Governor’s Mansion, becoming the second duo to do so in 44 years.

Among U.S. off-year races Kentucky’s was the most closely watched on Nov. 3, and the Republican victory signals a local shift toward an almost wholly-Red state. A 30 percent turnout rate left Democrats in the state House of Representatives (the last Democrat-controlled chamber in the Solid South) reeling with confusion, and last night’s only two Democratic statewide winners in a frenzy to rebuild the party brand.

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While they’re blowing up the phone lines of donors and local party chairs, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the smooth-talking Tea Party conservative -- frequently compared to Donald Trump, called a “pathological liar” by Kentucky’s own Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and winner of the Republican primary by 83 votes -- the man who swung the state Red, Matt Bevin:

Goodbye healthcare, hello Right to Work

Bevin campaigned on promises that his first act as governor would be to repeal the state's wildly successful health insurance exchange, Kynect, created with $253 million in federal funds, and its Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which has since covered more than 420,000 previously uninsured Kentuckians -- contributing to a drop in the state's uninsured rate from 20 percent to 9 percent over the past two years, according to Gallup.

A core tenet of his rowdy, radical appeal to voters Bevin derided "the welfare state" throughout his campaign in speeches, where he pushed himself as “the only candidate who has promised to dismantle Obamacare.” This played well even among the benefactors of the state’s Kynect program, where the name Obama has become as politically toxic as coal ash.

His positions stand in stark contrast to his own history, however. Bevin accepted $100,000 in state money from Connecticut via a matching grant when his family bell factory burned down. When asked why he didn't have the insurance which would have covered the factory's reconstruction, Bevin told reporters that the price of the insurance was too high.  

Bevin has claimed the price of Medicaid expansion is too high for the state as well. The program is currently running purely on federal dollars, but is slated to incrementally pick up costs starting in 2017 and ending with a cap of 10 percent on state costs in 2021. State estimates show that by that time, the expansion should be able to both pay for itself and create new jobs, findings that Bevin spent much of his campaign dodging.

Bevin has shifted positions on the issue, though, alternating between his strict promise to dismantle Kynect and a desire to use 1,115 waivers. The waivers are federal requests to use Medicaid block grants in creating a customizable state healthcare exchange, but which still don’t exempt the state from having to carry 10 percent of the costs by 2021.

A potential healthcare re-structure could also loom large for those Kentuckians who receive services from Planned Parenthood, which Bevin has promised to defund. In an earlier press release, the Bevin campaign said “As Governor, I will direct my Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services not to distribute federal taxpayer dollars from that department to Planned Parenthood clinics.”

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A likely front-running for the Secretary position is former Republican state Sen. Julie Denton, of Louisville, a former chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare with a short history of courting the Bevin campaign and a long history of advancing anti-choice legislation. But any cabinet’s compliance with Bevin’s order could endanger other federal Medicaid provision, as the Obama administration hinted recently.

Kentucky’s coal-powered energy policy would likely see less of a shake-up under Bevin, who told public radio audiences in September that he isn't interested in cutting pollution via the federal Clean Power Plan, arguing that climate change isn't man-made but that there is "absolutely unequivocal evidence" that it is caused by natural forces.

In the throes of his victory speech, Bevin was quick to praise the state's lieutenant governor-elect, his running mate Jenean Hampton. Hampton is a Tea Party activist and now the state's first Black constitutional officer.

Aside from dismantling Kynect, passing Right to Work legislation -- which would prevent union workplaces from requiring union dues of all employees--has been a central priority of the duo’s platform.

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“The reason that Right to Work is at the top of our list is that we are surrounded by states. Tennessee's just 30 minutes from Bowling Green and they have no state tax. They have a better business climate, so who knows what business we're losing,” Hampton said in an April interview. “I think going county by county is the wrong approach.”

Hampton brushed off questions about the rise in worker injuries in states with Right to Work laws, questioning the quality of the data. When asked about the hard numbers showing wage decline in Right to Work states, she only said “I've heard that too and I don’t know that I agree with that either. When there are a lot of businesses and they're all competing for workers the wages rise.”

From early on, Bevin put Hampton’s race at the forefront of his campaign speeches, reminding local Republican voters that it could play a crucial role by attracting conservative-leaning black voters and undercutting Conway's much-neglected base.

In Oldham County, for example, a suburban Louisville-adjoined Republican stronghold, Bevin told voters, “The fact that she is a black woman in Kentucky as a Republican puts her in fairly select company. It’s going to matter in the general election. If there’s a ticket being sold out of the Republican side that doesn’t have a woman on it, fairly or otherwise, you’re going to hear that narrative.”

But Hampton says that the discussion of race in this context makes her uncomfortable. She prefers to see herself as “just Jenean.”

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Hampton takes a Tea Party approach to the economic and judicial disparities between races in Kentucky and across the country, eschewing the context of imbalanced incarceration rates and job opportunities for a classically libertarian approach.

“I don’t accept that society is inherently racist,” she said. “Are there racists out there? Sure there are, but the question is: what do you do with it? I always carried myself as ‘I'm just Jenean’ and there things to see and do, and there are people to meet, and I treat people as people. I don't see color.”

But she does. In the same interview, Hampton openly acknowledges a historical inequality between races and the role it played in her own life.

“I knew I was blessed to be born in the U.S.A., in this country, in this time, because in an earlier era I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t own property. I couldn’t even be in control of the fruits of my own labor,” she said.

The acknowledgment seems to stop there, though. Hampton sees the Black Lives Matter movement as disingenuous and chides protesters from Baltimore and Ferguson for stirring anti-police sentiment.

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“The concern rings hollow to me when they say ‘black lives matter’ because what they're telling me is that a black life matters only if a white person takes it. And I know that’s not what they mean but I’m looking at the level of excitement, the level of concern, over blacks being killed and I just think it could be misplaced. There’s hundreds who were killed, thousands who were killed, but it’s black on black crime,” she said.

“You know I’ve heard more excuses from people rioting in Baltimore, that they're just disenfranchised. Well, I don’t understand,” said Hampton, adding that her upbringing in a poverty-stricken area of Detroit didn’t prevent her from achieving personal success.

“Do you know anybody who was born a slave? I know there are people out there, and that's a thing. But here's the thing, I was born in 1958. My parents were not slaves. Nobody around me was a slave. I knew about it because in the 1960's they decided to teach black American history,” she said. “When I hear people say our economy is based on slaves, maybe it was. But we're not there. We are where we are.”

Hampton volunteered that she isn’t concerned with police brutality.

“The times that I go back to Detroit, I have less to fear from the cops than I do from other black people in Detroit,” she said. “If I walk down the street, I’m not worried about the cops. I know cops are my friend. I know that maybe they might profile me.”

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If the position of Lt. Gov. is an ambassador's role, Hampton’s sentiments may work against her in some of Kentucky’s racially divided regions.

Goodbye, blue skies: Kentucky’s Dems face the boot

So what happened to the Democrats on the state level? Which of the local party leaders let this coup happen?

The search for answers begins and ends with the old guard among the state’s Democrats. The answer itself could be seen on the resigned face of Patrick Hughes, the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party who appeared on stage at the Democrats’ campaign headquarters last night in awkward form, mc’ing the parade of concession speeches.

Hughes was a temporary pick for the KDP chair, according to Democratic insiders. A former deputy chief attorney general to Conway, Hughes was brought on with the understanding that his tenure as chair would only be through the duration of the campaign, and would serve as Conway’s Chief of Staff after the big win.

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Hughes was appointed in Feb. of this year, replacing Dan Logsdon, of the state's heavy-hitting Logsdon Oil and Gas company. Tax and property records show that the Logsdon and Conway families have been swapping oil and gas leases in eastern Kentucky for years. Logsdon held the chair since 2010. After overseeing a rise of Republican seats in legislature and the brutal defeat of Alison Lundergan Grimes in her 2014 U.S. Senate race against Mitch McConnell,

Hughes’ appointment was a sure signal to the state that Grimes’ defeat sent waves across the party, and Conway would be the next nominated. Naturally, Conway announced in May.

Conway’s loss has Hughes on the chopping block. This means the de facto party chair is now Grimes, but her father Jerry Lundergan is rumored to be calling the shots. He's a former state representative, two-time former KDP chair, and personal friend to the Clintons. Democrats aren’t likely to fall in line behind him, however. His longtime political consultant, Jonathan Hurst, was picked to manage the Grimes campaign against powerhouse McConnell, a choice many in the party are still sore about. Some Democrats still attribute the election loss to Lundergan’s alleged interference and campaign control.

Why on earth is all this state-level inside baseball important? What does it mean for the future of Democrats in Kentucky and other southern Red states?

Because these people are old guard Democrats with legacy names -- Lundergan, Conway, Andy Beshear (the sitting governor’s son and only other Democrat to win statewide office on Nov. 3) -- and are playing by an outdated rulebook.

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Democratic strategy, in Kentucky and elsewhere in the south, has largely failed to evolve in concert with the radicalism of the more-conservative right. Democrats have failed to cultivate the kind of fresh-faced candidates that Kentucky Republicans have  -- young zealots who court the base with unapologetic fervor. Instead of developing diverse campaign strategies and funding new  Democrats, the old guard repacks the same eggs in the same fraying basket.

To be a successful Kentucky Democrat, the conventional wisdom until now has been to court pro-union social conservatives in rural regions by declaring a love of guns, coal and teachers. Then, a Democrat must rouse the last vestiges of western Kentucky unionism. They must make limited overtures to urban areas, hoping the base shows up on Election Day.

And the strategy worked for a long time.

But the campaign strategy ignores consistent rural-to-urban population shifts in Kentucky altogether, attempts to court aging rural voters who have been going Red since the late aughts. Democrats have had plenty of warning. They knew the state was going Red in 2010, when the famously Blue 6th Congressional District kept their Democrat, Ben Chandler, in the U.S. House by less than 1 percent of the vote, only to be defeated in 2012 by 4 percent. He lost to the same opponent, Andy Barr, who still holds the seat and won his last election by a full 20 percent.

Coal unions are going extinct and the only population growth in some of these counties comes with the construction of new prisons. By playing a Republican-lite tune to the more deeply partisan Republican regions, Democrats are hitting all the wrong chords for an urban progressive base which feels more ignored than ever. Star players like Grimes, Conway and Beshear the Lesser have tiptoed around rural anti-Obama sentiment and failed to rally around the state's healthcare successes--a Democratic victory that could have been an enormous harvest of party PR in the state's "Golden Triangle" of metropolitan growth.  

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But the old guard knows the jig is up. Lundergan’s Clinton connection can only hold so much value for the party's go-to strategist when election losses become this brutal. Candidates willing to kiss the ring would be well-advised to proceed with caution: his connection couldn't secure Democrats a U.S. Senate seat in 2014, nor the Governor's Mansion in 2015. To play by the old rules in 2016 could mean losing the House, the last Blue chamber in the Solid South, and declaring political bankruptcy in the state overall.

If election night was any hint, one could look at Bevin’s televised victory dance, where the writhing Republican throng shouted in unison, “Flip the House! Flip the House!"

Bevin, from the podium, was leading their chant.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Matt Bevin received grant money from the state of New Hampshire, when in fact he received it from the state of Connecticut, where his family Bell Factory was previously located. Salon regrets the error.

KY Governor Race Big Election Day Surprise


Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a multimedia public affairs reporter, a member of the statehouse press corps, and the founder of Kentucky's first freelance capital bureau, KY120. Follow her on Twitter @RaeHodge.

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