Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is a presidential phone-buddy and White House regular who’s become one of President Donald Trump’s loudest surrogates.
He’s also one of the most unpopular governors in the country, facing a treacherous reelection in November. And the White House, fearing that an embarrassing loss in a deep-red state would stoke doubts about the president’s own ability to win another term, is preparing to go all-in to save him.
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Vice President Mike Pence, who recently flew to Lexington to raise money for the governor, is scheduled to headline a gala dinner hosted by Bevin on Friday evening. On Saturday, Bevin will air his first TV ad during the Kentucky Derby — expected to be a Trump-themed spot packed with footage of the president.
The White House is in further discussions with Bevin’s team, which has drawn up a list of requests that includes multiple Trump campaign stops in the state. During a backstage chat with Bevin at last week’s National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis, Pence pledged to the governor that he would have all the help he wanted, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The Trump team has watched with growing concern as Bevin’s approval ratings have plummeted to the low 30s. With the presidential campaign kicking into gear, the Kentucky governor’s race is likely to be the most closely watched contest in the run-up to 2020, and Trump aides acknowledge alarm bells will go off if one of the president’s closest allies loses in a state that Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points.
“You want to be winning and not losing in red states ahead of your reelection bid,” said Scott Jennings, a Louisville-based Republican strategist who served as a top political aide in the George W. Bush White House. “I think having the president come and remind everyone what’s at stake is important.”
Bevin has visited the White House so frequently that his presence in the West Wing has become a running joke among some Trump aides. Since January 2018, the Kentucky governor has visited the White House 10 times, according to a count provided by an administration official. Over the past year, the White House has dispatched at least nine Cabinet heads and top officials to Kentucky to promote the Trump agenda with the governor. First daughter Ivanka Trump has gone twice.
The Kentucky governor is on the president’s speed dial. In March, Trump called Bevin while the governor was announcing the construction a new steel plant. Bevin held his iPhone and put Trump on speakerphone so he could address the gathering.
And when Trump kicked off a post-2016 election victory tour with a Cincinnati rally, Bevin was onstage.
Many see similarities between the two. Like Trump, the 52-year-old Kentucky governor is a wealthy businessman and outspoken political outsider who has raged against the establishment.
“He has been a great supporter of President Trump and the president wants to see him reelected in November,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump 2020 spokesman.
The governor’s plight has caused unease across the party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who defeated Bevin in a bitter 2014 primary, has put aside the past rivalry and instructed his political team to be helpful to the governor in any way he wants. Aides to both men have been in touch.
McConnell, who wields a formidable political apparatus in the state, has much at stake in the governor’s race. Like Trump, the GOP leader is on the ballot in 2020 and a Bevin loss could further energize Democrats who are eager to take down McConnell.
The fact that Democrats are even competitive in the Kentucky governor’s race represents a remarkable turn of fortunes. Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats, five of the state’s six congressional seats, the governorship, and both chambers of the state Legislature. Barack Obama’s aggressive efforts to address climate change, many believe, deeply undercut the Democratic Party’s prospects in the coal-dependent state.
But Bevin is nonetheless in jeopardy. After narrowly winning the 2015 gubernatorial primary, he picked a series of high-profile fights, most notably with public school teachers. Last week, Bevin, who’s waged an intense campaign to reform the state’s pension system, came under fire for blaming striking teachers for the shooting of a 7-year-old girl who had stayed home because school had been shut down.
“The governor has a tough reelection, largely because he’s not a part of the political establishment and has ruffled feathers and gotten into fights in Frankfort,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist with extensive experience in the state.
The governor’s political standing is so precarious that he’s being forced to spend campaign funds more than six months before the election. Bevin on Thursday purchased about $500,000 worth of May commercial airtime.
State Attorney General Andy Beshear, son of popular former Gov. Steve Beshear, is widely considered the front-runner in a May 21 Democratic primary that also includes state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and former state Auditor Adam Edelen.
People close to Bevin say his general election campaign will focus heavily on the president. The hope, they say, is that the president will help win over many of the blue-collar voters who backed Trump in 2016 but who’ve soured on the governor over his push for pension reform.
And they’re eager for Trump to savage Bevin’s eventual Democratic opponent.
“I hope the president uses his political capital in Kentucky because he’s got it here,” said Steve Robertson, a former Kentucky GOP chairman. “I think he could make a huge difference.”