Cross: Bevin’s chances for re-election are better than you think

If Gov. Matt Bevin does run for re-election, as he keeps saying he will, and as I believe he will, what chance does he have of winning?

Better than you might think.

Yes, he may be America’s most unpopular governor.

In the latest Morning Consult state-by-state poll, for the last quarter of 2018, his approval rating was 34 percent and his disapproval was 51 percent. (Four other governors had lower approval, but have since left office; most states elected governors in November.)

Almost all the polling was done before the legislature ended, after two days, a special session Bevin had called on pensions without proper planning and groundwork — the best evidence yet that he has not mastered an essential part of his job, working with the General Assembly.

Yes, a Mason-Dixon poll taken before the session showed Attorney General Andy Beshear, Bevin’s leading Democratic challenger, beating him 48 percent to 40 percent.

Bevin ran about even with state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, who has also announced, and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who isn’t expected to. The poll didn’t test former state auditor Adam Edelen, who wasn’t in the race yet.

Yes, a national Democratic group is already running digital-media ads attacking Bevin, including a line from a lightly-regarded Republican challenger, state Rep. Robert Goforth of Laurel County, saying, “We don’t want Matt Bevin pushed down our throats anymore.”

Yes, other legislators clearly feel likewise, and First District U.S. Rep. James Comer, who lost to Bevin by 83 votes in the 2015 primary, says most state GOP lawmakers have asked him to run again.

For months, he said he wouldn’t mount a challenge, but now says he’s willing to reconsider since Bevin is so unpopular and “because of the outpouring of requests I’m getting … from all over the state. It’s not just the legislators; it’s local elected officials, it’s party leaders, it’s prominent business people.”

Bevin hasn’t filed candidacy papers yet, saying he’s still deciding on a running mate. But Comer says legislators have told him, “You file. He will never file if you file.” And what does Comer think? “I don’t know what to believe,” he said, adding that with one minor exception, “He has not spoken to me the entire time he’s been governor. . . . We have no communication lines.”

Bevin, like President Trump, doesn’t follow traditional political patterns and procedures. His reckless mouth has cost him politically, but he can keep flouting tradition and still be re-elected because his iconoclastic attitude resembles that of Trump, a Kentucky favorite, and he has great personal wealth to fund a campaign.

The ads his money will buy have good material available:

— Kentucky’s economy, with some regional exceptions, is doing well. Bevin, a businessman, seems to be a good salesman for the state.

— He has tackled the issue of the state’s underfunded pensions, reversing years of neglect by his recent predecessors. That’s more meaningful to voters than screwing up a special session.

— State government seems to be running about as well as I can remember, though that notion must be tempered with the shortage of journalists in Frankfort to uncover misdeeds. That being said, Bevin is a moralist who rails against corruption. He also crusades against abortion, trying to banish it from the state, an attitude that many Kentucky voters welcome.

— That issue could help Bevin in a fully contested primary, as could his plan to make able-bodied Medicaid recipients work. That could turn out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, but probably not before the general election, and I’ll bet it’s a notion popular with voters.

The last Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, overcame unpopularity and primary challenges in 2007, then lost badly in the fall. Conversely, Bevin appears more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election. Polls 11 months out, before any real money is spent, are fuzzy indicators, and none of the Democratic challengers may have the right stuff or enough money.

Bevin’s ace next November could be Trump, whose popularity in Kentucky has made it a more Republican state than it was when Bevin was elected (see legislative rosters and voter registration). Unless the president is found to be traitorous, either in the U.S. Senate or the court of public opinion, he can campaign for Bevin and perhaps make a difference like he did for Sixth District Rep. Andy Barr last fall. He could do that for Comer, too. But Comer probably wouldn’t need him as much.

Al Cross (Twitter @rura alj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. This column first appeared at