By Matthew Young
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Republicans, adorned in suits and dresses, sipped their drinks and rang their bells – their Bevin bells. As each set of precincts came in, the cheers grew louder for Republican Matt Bevin in the Galt House Hotel on the riverfront in Louisville. Tuesday he became only the second Republican to be elected governor of Kentucky in four decades.
The consensus of support in the room did not come, however, because Matt Bevin was Republican; it came because he is a maverick; a political outsider; a fresh face; a change.
In his two campaigns for public office, Bevin has often rubbed many Republicans the wrong way. After his primary defeat in the 2014 Senate race by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Bevin refused to endorse McConnell against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. This year, he said he favored Ben Carson for president rather than Kentucky’s own Sen. Rand Paul, even as Paul came to the state to campaign for Bevin.
In September, the Republican Governors Association pulled its ads from the airwaves in Kentucky, a surprising move in a year that only had three governor’s races, and did not come back into the state until just a few weeks before Tuesday’s election.
Even in victory it was clear Bevin was a party outsider. “I’m proud of the fact that this is a great night for the Republican party in the state of Kentucky,” he told the Galt House crowd, “but it is more important that this is a great night for conservatives in Kentucky.”
Bevin does things his own way. Upset with certain journalists, he often refused to answer questions from them. He blacked out Louisville’s WAVE-TV, refusing to buy advertising on the Louisville NBC affiliate. This meant popular shows like The Voice, The Blacklist and Sunday Night Football were closed to advertising for Bevin in the largest media market in the state.
In a state that traditionally leans blue for state elections, especially the governor’s office, Bevin stole the show by keeping the focus on conservative social issues. While Jack Conway seemed like a Punxsutawney Phil who saw his shadow at the Fancy Farm picnic and went back in his hole for six weeks, raising money, Bevin traveled around the state defending Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
But as the campaign rounded the final turn, Bevin was still staring down the barrel of unfriendly poll numbers. He shifted his strategy, began releasing ads linking Conway to President Obama and started calling his opponent a rubber stamp for Obama.
His strategy worked.
Bevin won over voters like Stanley Burgan, 73, a retired auto body painter in Jessamine County. Burgan said he is registered Democratic, “But I went Republican because I’m sick of what Democrats are doing; meaning Obama.” Asked about specifics, Burgan said, “the homosexual thing, the liberalism – almost socialism – the Democrats are producing.”
In an election where officials expected a 28 percent turnout, Bevin rallied social conservatives and religious groups, who may have produced larger-than-expected support; 30.7 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, and they pushed Bevin into the governor’s mansion with a margin of 8.7 percentage points.
“We are Republicans and Democrats, and we are one Kentucky at the end of the day.” Bevin said to the crowd of cheering supporters. “Kentucky is ready for a fresh start!”
But the biggest cheer of the night came from the candidate’s wife.
Bevin said that as he drove 95,000 miles around the state over the last two years, “I hear so often, ‘How is it possible that you always seem so rested and full of energy? You have all these children; how is it possible that you are able to do this?’ I’ll tell you. You marry well.”
Glenna Bevin, who appeared in a TV ad for her husband, could not wipe the smile off her face, even though the spotlight embarrassed her. She tried to hide behind the shoulder of her husband, politely declining the attention the two had earned Tuesday night, along with their nine children, four adopted form Ethiopia.
From the failure in the Senate race, to his outsider, and sometime abrasive approach to the governor’s race, one metaphor illustrates the grit of Bevin. His father Avery Bevin was asked about a story Matt once told during the Senate race.
It was a cold New England night on the farm, probably dozens of degrees below zero, as it often is. A car would not start, and Bevin and his father went out to persuade it. Bevin said that it was so cold the moisture in their leather gloves froze, and had to be removed to perform repairs – a dangerous task due to the risk of frostbite.
Avery Bevin said it happened regularly. “You either took your gloves off and made it run, or you just sat there and froze to death,” said Avery. He never imagined his son in public service, but Matt has taken the gloves off and says he can make Kentucky run.