Bevin looks to overcome battles to win another term

BRUCE SCHREINER
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2015, file photo, Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin addresses reporters during a news conference in Frankfort, Ky. Bevin has lashed out at protesting teachers and ridiculed judges during a tumultuous term spent steering Kentucky on a conservative course while struggling to fix pension problems. Now the governor faces the first test of his reelection campaign in a race that could offer clues about the mood of the national electorate heading into a presidential election year. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Never one to duck controversy, Kentucky's Republican governor has feuded with teachers and insulted judges. He stunned GOP lawmakers recently by vetoing a pension bill counted on by an array of state-funded agencies, provoking a spat with the state Senate's top leader.

Just weeks away from a primary election testing his standing with fellow Republicans, Gov. Matt Bevin intends to call lawmakers back for a special session on pensions. The date hasn't been set, but the last one he called collapsed when the legislature went home without giving Bevin what he wanted.

Kentucky's lightning-rod governor also has run the risk of firing up Democratic voters heading into the November general election.

Still, Bevin will be difficult to unseat. He leads a state that's moved decidedly toward the GOP. He's presiding over an economy with a low statewide unemployment rate. And he has a political soul mate in the White House who carried Kentucky by a landslide in 2016 and has called Bevin "a great governor."

"The best thing that Matt Bevin has going for him, other than a good economy, is Donald Trump," longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said.

The two businessmen are similarly unconventional conservative politicians. Both favor social media over traditional media and attack critics fiercely. A Bevin defeat this year would send shock waves through Republican circles nationally heading into 2020.

At least publicly, Bevin seems unfazed by any political fallout from his pension bill veto.

"Have you ever been under the assumption that I do things based on political calculation?" he said. "That's not my motivator here. My motivation is purely what is the right thing to do for retirees."

The vetoed measure was intended to give regional universities, county health departments and many other agencies relief from a spike in pension costs looming July 1. Bevin said the bill would have broken the "inviolable contract" guaranteeing employees get the benefits promised when hired. Some Republicans disagreed.

When Senate President Robert Stivers called Bevin's veto "perplexing," the governor said his fellow Republican's remarks "indicate either a remarkable misunderstanding of the legislation you just voted for, or an intentional misrepresentation of the facts."

Stivers said Bevin had signaled support for a Senate version of the pension bill he said resembled the measure rejected by the governor.

One of Bevin's GOP challengers tried to capitalize on the veto. State Rep. Robert Goforth — one of three Republicans running against the governor in the May 21 primary — accused Bevin of trying to impose "his own toxic recipe for pension reform" on lawmakers.

Bevin is widely expected to win the GOP primary despite an aggressive campaign by Goforth. But a strong showing by the challenger could signal vulnerability for Bevin heading into the general election.

GOP strategist Scott Jennings rates Bevin as the favorite to win reelection, despite the rancor over pensions.

"He is certainly in danger, but given the political bent of the state and Trump's popularity these days, he'd have to screw up royally to lose," he said.

Still, a prominent Republican who lost narrowly to Bevin in a GOP primary four years ago said Bevin has work to do.

"I think that if the election were today, he would lose," U.S. Rep. James Comer said this week on a TV political talk show syndicated across Kentucky. "He has no form of a campaign out there. I haven't seen the first sign or bumper sticker out there."

Comer said Bevin has plenty of time to "get it together," though, and predicted that "he'll be the one probably to beat in the end."

Last year, thousands of teachers closed schools across Kentucky to protest changes to the state's public pension system, among the worst funded retirement systems in the country. On one day of mass closings, Bevin guaranteed without evidence that a child left home alone had been sexually assaulted somewhere in Kentucky. He later apologized.

In a separate battle, Bevin called one state judge who ruled against his administration an "incompetent hack."

Last year, Democrats attacked Bevin for criticizing teachers as they campaigned in state legislative races. It didn't work — Republicans maintained overwhelming majorities in the Senate and House — and Jennings doubts it will work this year.

"There are scores of people out there who don't get guaranteed pensions and are mightily inconvenienced when schools are closed abruptly," he said. "They don't have the luxury of calling in sick when they aren't and would probably be fired for doing so."

After last week's veto, some top Republican lawmakers said it's up to Bevin to line up legislative support for a new pension bill.

"Basically, the ball's kind of in his court," said House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney. "He's going to have to put something together that members could support before we come back, or it would be futile to bring us back."

Despite all the turmoil, unseating a Republican governor won't be easy in a state where the GOP has successfully nationalized state and local races.

Democrat Greg Stumbo, a former House speaker running for attorney general, said his party's gubernatorial nominee will likely emerge from the primary either even or ahead of Bevin. But he concedes the challenge remains formidable.

"I'm not saying Matt Bevin will go silently into the night," Stumbo said. "He's a pretty good politician. He's a salesman. But he's going to have a race on his hands."