FRANKFORT, KY – In basketball-crazy Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's reelection bid should have been a slam dunk, with a strong economy and an electorate trending hard toward the GOP in recent years.
But a series of misplays has damaged the acerbic businessman-turned-politician's prospects. He has feuded openly with teachers, dismissed fellow Republicans and made exaggerated claims that he later had to defend, giving Democrat Andy Beshear openings to attack.
Now Bevin is hoping a last-minute visit from President Donald Trump will give him a game-winning assist. Trump carried Kentucky by a landslide in 2016, and his popularity there eclipses Bevin's.
That helps explain the steady parade of Trump surrogates who have made their way into the state, from former spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders to federal Housing Secretary Ben Carson to Vice President Mike Pence. It also may be why, at the state fair this summer, the governor literally wrapped himself in the president's image, donning a jacket decorated with images of Trump's face while greeting fairgoers.
In a race widely viewed as a tossup, Trump will headline an election-eve rally Monday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, where the University of Kentucky men's basketball team plays its home games. Bevin is counting on the president, engaged in an epic battle for his own political survival back in Washington, to help him avoid an embarrassing GOP loss in the bluegrass state.
Trump reiterated his support for Bevin on Twitter. The president wrote on Sunday that Bevin "has been a GREAT Governor. Kentucky (I Love You!), please be sure to vote for Matt Bevin on TUESDAY. Matt will never let you down, and we have to send a strong signal to Nancy Pelosi and the Radical Left Democrats. See you on Monday night, VOTE TUESDAY!!!"
Raising the stakes for Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — another highly interested home-state observer — must face Kentucky voters himself next year.
Beshear, meanwhile, has countered with a methodical, disciplined campaign, sticking closely to a state-based script built around promises of continued access to health care, better schools and legalized casino gambling. He also frequently vows to end the drama of Bevin's open combat with teachers and other groups.
The Kentucky governor's race is being watched closely for any signs of vulnerability among Trump-aligned Republican incumbents heading into 2020. Kentucky is one of three states Trump won handily in 2016 that are electing governors this year, along with Louisiana and Mississippi.
Bevin supporters hope the president's visit will inspire conservatives — Republicans and Democrats alike — to ensure he wins a second term. Bevin barely surpassed 50% of the GOP vote in a four-way primary in the spring.
"To me, it's a great capstone for the Republican campaign," said GOP strategist Scott Jennings. "And maybe it's the reminder that some folks need that this matters to the president."
Trump is inserting himself into the governor's race at a perilous time for his presidency. A Bevin loss could signal that Trump support is slipping in a red state, a Democratic strategist said. That could have repercussions in Washington if the House impeaches Trump and there's a trial in the GOP-led Senate.
"If these senators start getting squirrely because they don't believe Trump's coattails are there anymore, that makes Trump's Washington life much more difficult," said Democratic strategist Mark Riddle. But if Bevin wins, Trump can "say to the Senate and McConnell, 'See, throw me overboard? I delivered Kentucky.'"
McConnell recently vowed to stop any Democratic push for impeachment as he raised campaign funds off the Trump inquiry in a social media campaign ad.
Trump has been omnipresent in the Kentucky campaign, shown in TV ads to reinforce Bevin's partnership narrative. Bevin is even running ominous ads about illegal immigration in a state far from the nation's borders.
Trump is "going to roll the dice and if Bevin wins he'll take credit. And if Bevin loses, he won't remember his name tomorrow," Riddle said.
Beshear largely avoids mentioning Trump, but his campaign has wooed the president's base. A recent TV ad featured two Trump supporters who back Beshear, the son of former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear.
Bevin has repeatedly railed against the impeachment inquiry as he seeks to nationalize the race, calling it an "absolute travesty." He has demanded "transparency" in the process and tweeted that Democrats investigating Trump's alleged linkage of aid to the Ukraine with domestic presidential politics are "an embarrassment to themselves & to our nation."
Beshear, the state's attorney general, has deflected impeachment questions while keeping his focus on state issues like teacher raises and legalized gambling.
"He's been smart to stay away from the national food fight," Riddle said.
Jennings said he sees no signs that Trump's support is slipping in Kentucky. The impeachment probe could energize conservative voters to turn out for Bevin, he said.
"If I were the Republicans, I wouldn't hesitate to say, 'If you want to send the most direct message to Nancy Pelosi that you can, show up and vote and have an overwhelming vote for the Republicans and let her know that outside the Beltway, overturning an election is not a popular thing to do," he said.
In a closing-week ad, Bevin once again linked Beshear to national Democrats pushing the impeachment inquiry.
Beshear, meanwhile, hammers away at Bevin's toxic relationship with educators.
The governor has criticized teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol against pension and education proposals he supported. Some days, so many teachers rallied that some schools closed.
In 2018, Bevin asserted without evidence that an unidentified child who had been left home alone somewhere in the state had been sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down earlier this year, connecting a girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by teacher protests.
Beshear has called Bevin a bully. But during a recent debate, Bevin said he regretted nothing he's said about educators.
Bevin has said he's done more than his predecessors to support public education. During his tenure, he says teachers' pensions have been fully funded, 100% of lottery funds are going toward education and per-pupil public education funding has risen.