FRANKFORT, Ky. — He sends mean tweets and sometimes blocks his critics from following him. He bashes the press. He gives people demeaning nicknames, like “Peeping Tom.” Scholars say he has authoritarian tendencies. Liberals say he abuses his power. Sometimes fellow Republicans are worried about that too. He is against taking down Confederate monuments, encouraging people to enroll in Obamacare or releasing his tax returns. He is for describing the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August as a problem with two sides, constantly bashing his Democratic predecessor and rolling back government regulations whenever possible.
He is … Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
Bevin was running for governor in the fall of 2015, just as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was taking off. The two men were immediately likened to one another: millionaire businessmen running as Republicans but really as outsiders to the political establishment. Both touted their lack of any experience in elective office as an advantage. Bevin was elected in November 2015, Trump a year later.
If Trumpism is about tactics and demeanor, the 50-year-old Bevin is perhaps the closest analog to the president in American politics. But if Trumpism is also about pushing through a conservative agenda and “winning,” a word the president uses often, Bevin is Trumpism done way more effectively.
Much of Bevin’s success compared to Trump’s is likely because Kentucky is much more conservative than America, giving Bevin huge majorities in the state House and Senate and an essentially powerless Democratic opposition. At the same time, the Kentucky governor appears to be a more disciplined, savvy politician than the president.
Bevin’s nearly two years in office suggest that, despite the president’s early struggles, Trump-style politics — norm-breaking and anti-institutional — could thrive even if the president does not, particularly in the growing number of states away from the coasts where Republicans control virtually all parts of government.
“He’s more in control,” said Joe Gerth, a columnist at the Courier-Journal, the Louisville paper. “He isn’t prone to Saturday morning tweet storms. You can see an end game.”
“He’s very Trump-like, but I think he’s smarter,” said Joni Jenkins, a Democrat who has served in Kentucky’s state House of Representatives since 1995.
“And that makes him more dangerous,” she added.
“He might actually read the Bible”
Trump had run for office before — a brief, unsuccessful campaign for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 2000. Bevin had run before, too, and also lost. But he had lost spectacularly — in a campaign that became known for, of all things, cockfighting.
Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Kentucky in 1999, worked at and then ran several private equity and money management businesses in the state for more than a decade before entering politics. But in 2013, a big opportunity emerged. In the wake of then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, conservative tea party activists here were frustrated with Republicans in Washington, who they felt weren’t strong enough in taking on the Democratic president. They wanted to challenge and defeat Mitch McConnell, who was then the Senate minority leader, in his 2014 GOP primary.
And Bevin seemed out of central casting for the role. His personal background was ideal for a Republican candidate: Army veteran; father of nine children, four of whom he and his wife adopted from Ethiopia; a member of one of Kentucky’s (and the nation’s) largest Christian churches. He had millions in personal wealth from his businesses and was willing to put some of that money into his campaign. And Bevin, with his booming speaking voice, relative youth and easy, glad-handing manner with voters, seemed the perfect contrast to McConnell, who had been in the Senate for nearly three decades, is 25 years older than Bevin, and lacks charisma.
“One thing that is different [from Trump] is that [Bevin] might actually read the Bible,” said Jerry Abramson, a Democrat who served as Louisville’s mayor and Kentucky’s lieutenant governor before a stint as a senior White House adviser in Obama’s final two years in office.
In the waning days of the campaign, already far down in the polls, Bevin attended a cockfighting rally sponsored by conservative activists in the state. At first, he denied that he knew what the event was about. But Bevin eventually apologized after a local television network found video that showed him at the event speaking specifically about cockfighting.1
Bevin lost to McConnell by 25 percentage points in the May 2014 primary. His political career looked over. Bevin hadn’t just lost. He ended the race with a very acrimonious relationship with McConnell, one of the most powerful Republicans in Kentucky and the country. He had also made a huge blunder by going to the cockfighting event.
But Bevin was undeterred. In January 2015, he entered Kentucky’s GOP gubernatorial primary, even though two candidates from the party’s establishment were already in the race.
Democrats here had generally assumed they would lose the governor’s race in 2015, even though outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who was term-limited, remained relatively popular. Kentucky, which Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, had been solidly Republican in U.S. Senate and presidential races for more than a decade. Democrats were still competitive in state races, but 2015 seemed like the year in which Kentucky’s governor’s mansion would go red.
Then Bevin won the primary.
The two establishment candidates had focused on attacking one another, seeming to assume that Bevin was tarred from the cockfighting appearance and the Senate loss and could not win. Bevin ended up winning by 83 votes among more than 214,000 cast, a margin of .04 percentage points.
Democrats thought Bevin’s victory was a gift, and even some Republicans here assumed Bevin was unelectable. The cockfighting controversy had been covered widely in the state. Then-Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee, held a small but consistent lead in the few polls conducted of the race.
Instead, Bevin won easily. In a preview of what would happen nationally a year later, he carried virtually all of the non-urban areas of Kentucky, including dozens of counties that had backed Beshear four years earlier.
Bevin entered the governor’s office somewhat limited in power because Democrats still controlled Kentucky’s House. Then, Trump carried Kentucky by 30 percentage points last November, helping lift the Republicans from 46 seats in the 100-member Kentucky House to 64.
Just like Trump in Washington, Bevin now had basically total control in Frankfort.
“Fast and furious”
But that’s where Trump’s and Bevin’s paths diverged.
Bevin and the legislature enacted seven new laws in the first week that the Kentucky legislature met this year, including a requirement that, before a woman can have an abortion, she must be presented with an ultrasound of the unborn fetus and listen to a doctor describe the image; a ban on all abortions after the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy; “right to work” legislation; and a requirement that employees formally “opt in” to the union before their pay is withheld for dues.2
Later in the legislative session, Bevin and Republicans enacted a number of other conservative priorities, including authorizing charter schools to operate in Kentucky for the first time.
“We’ve been thrilled,” said Julia Crigler, who until recently ran the Kentucky office of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative activist group that is part of the network of organizations led by Charles and David Koch.
“It was fast and furious,” said Jenkins, who voted against all of those provisions.
This early success was not an accident. Republicans in Kentucky have a bigger majority than in Washington (64 of 100 seats in the House, and 27 of 38 in the Senate), so that made passing these bills easier. But Bevin and Kentucky GOP legislators also entered 2017 with a clear, agreed-upon agenda.
In contrast, the Republicans in Washington, including Trump, have been all hype and little results. After Trump’s election, some conservatives floated the idea that the party could push through a repeal of Obamacare in early January so the president could sign it on his first day in office, Jan. 20. But Trump and congressional leaders hadn’t really done the work of writing an Obamacare repeal proposal that Republicans in Congress could agree on and quickly pass. The lack of a unified plan dogged Republicans throughout the Obamacare repeal process, and the GOP is having some of the same problems as it seeks to make major changes to America’s tax system.
Anyone could have told Trump that health care is a complicated political issue and that using perhaps his best opportunity to get his policies adopted — early in his term and with his party controlling both houses of Congress — on health care was a political mistake. Trump campaigned hard against Obamacare in 2016, but he could have backed away from all that bluster — Bevin did in Kentucky.
Bevin, like Trump, attacked Obamacare relentlessly during much of his campaign, although he softened his stance somewhat during the general election. Once in office, Bevin could have unilaterally stopped Kentucky from taking expanded Medicaid funds through Obamacare, a policy implemented by Bevin’s Democratic predecessor. Such a move likely would have thrilled the most conservative activists here, like those affiliated with AFP. But it would have been a huge political fight. In part because Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the country, the Medicaid expansion dramatically reduced the number of uninsured here, particularly in rural counties that overwhelmingly backed Bevin (and Trump a year later).
So instead of ending the Medicaid expansion in Kentucky, Bevin has talked a big anti-Obamacare game while not really acting on it.
He has basically stopped Kentucky’s government from encouraging enrollment through Obamacare’s marketplaces, similar to what Trump has done nationally. He has complained that too many people in Kentucky are on Medicaid, and his administration is trying to recraft the program in the state, looking to limit some benefits and adding requirements that recipients have jobs or be enrolled in some kind of education or job-training program.
These are not minor changes. The Bevin administration estimates that it will reduce the number of Kentuckians on Medicaid through the Obamacare expansion by more than 20 percent if its changes are implemented.
But while he won’t admit this publicly, the deeply conservative governor, unlike the president, appears to have decided that the politics of being perceived as taking away health insurance for lots of poor people were too hard. So the Obamacare Medicaid expansion is largely staying in place in Kentucky.
“He couldn’t pull the trigger on total repeal,” said Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “During the debate on ACA repeal [in Washington], he was all over the place, but tried to imply he supported full repeal and attacked ‘replace’ from the right, even while not being willing to do it in his own state.”
Not picking a full-blown health care fight has paid off. Trump’s approval rating has seemed to decline most when the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare was most in the news. Bevin, though, still has decent approval ratings.3
“I’m grateful for these guys”
The Republicans in the state legislature favored more incremental changes to Medicaid, instead of getting rid of the whole Obamacare expansion of the program in the state. And Bevin seems to have followed their advice. That move fits with Bevin’s general approach: He may have started off his career running against McConnell, but as governor, he tries to maintain strong relationships with his fellow Republicans.
That’s not to say Bevin and GOP lawmakers in Kentucky haven’t had their disagreements. Kentucky’s legislature recently passed a bill declaring that it, not the governor, would determine when and how the state would spend $100 million it won in a lawsuit.4 When Bevin vetoed the bill, both houses of the legislature overrode his veto and enacted it. Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, a Republican, bluntly told reporters here, “the legislature is the only body that can appropriate money, and we wanted to make that real clear.”
But Bevin said little publicly about the veto override. In fact, the governor rarely publicly airs any differences he has with Hoover and Senate President Robert Stivers, also a Republican.
“I’m grateful for these guys,” Bevin said in a recent speech at a Kentucky Republican Party dinner, one of several times he praised the two legislative leaders, who were in attendance.
Bevin has also patched up his relationship with McConnell, still perhaps the most important Republican in Kentucky. At that Republican Party dinner, Bevin extolled the veteran senator for blocking then-President Obama’s push to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, preserving a seat that was eventually filled by Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch. McConnell returned the favor when he took the dais.
The contrast here should be obvious: Trump and his allies constantly complain about congressional Republicans. The president has a tense relationship with McConnell, whom Trump needs to get his policy goals adopted. In July, after Republicans in Congress passed a bill that barred Trump from lifting sanctions against Russia, the president released a scathing statement criticizing a Congress led by members of his own party.
It’s not clear if Bevin’s agenda is passing just because he has a huge margin or because of these relationships. But it’s hard to imagine it would hurt Trump to have stronger relationships with his party’s leaders in Congress, as Bevin does here.
“The authoritarian playbook”
Bevin’s respect for Republicans in the legislature and in Congress does not extend to other institutions. In fact, like Trump in Washington, he’s at war with virtually any institution or person who criticizes him or whom he can’t control.
Bevin called a Kentucky state court judge who has issued rulings against him a “political hack.” He released a video on Facebook criticizing influential ministers in Louisville who did not support one of his proposals to help the city’s African-American community. The governor has blocked at least 600 people from following him on Twitter or Facebook.5
Bevin’s administration has repeatedly filed lawsuits and challenged the licensing of health care clinics in the state that perform abortions. There is now only one abortion provider left in Kentucky, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. Bevin’s administration is currently challenging EMW’s license. If EMW stops conducting abortions, Kentucky would be the only state in America without a single abortion clinic; Bevin would have essentially ended abortions in Kentucky even as Supreme Court rulings like Roe v. Wade in theory limit a state from banning all abortions.
The governor and his allies have floated proposals to remove power and authority from the office of Kentucky’s attorney general, as the current occupant of that office, Andy Beshear, has filed several lawsuits arguing that Bevin has overstepped his powers as governor. (Beshear, who is a Democrat and the son of Bevin’s predecessor, has won one suit in a Kentucky court.)
Adams, a fan of Bevin, views the governor’s norm-breaking as an asset, strengthening his power because he is unpredictable.
Referring to Bevin’s opponents, Adams said, “No one understands where he is coming from and where he is going.”
Beyond Beshear, the Democrats are fairly weak as an oppositional force to Bevin. Unlike in Washington, Democrats hold so few seats (36 of 100 in the House, 11 of 38 in the Senate) that they basically play no role in governing.
“Most of the folks that work for state government in Frankfort are fairly Democratic, so in a sense they do make up a ‘deep state,’” said Robert Kahne, a Democrat here who c0-hosts My Old Kentucky Podcast. “But they haven’t had the same kind of willingness to leak stuff about the Bevin administration. We certainly don’t have a set of behind-the-scenes actors making policy in ways our governor doesn’t support.”
With Democrats and the “deep state”6 mostly a non-factor, the institution with perhaps the strongest ability to challenge Bevin is Kentucky’s press corps. And he is battling it intensely.
Early in Trump’s term, the president and his aides were fairly confrontational with the media: ignoring questions on even routine policy issues from reporters from the New York Times; threatening to remove the press corps from its space in the West Wing; and excluding some reporters from a closed-door briefing with top administration officials in a way that seemed targeted at outlets whose coverage Trump’s team did not like.
But for whatever reason (it could be a recognition of the power of the national press corps, Trump’s own personal interest in talking to and courting the press or something else entirely), the Trump White House’s battles with the media are now essentially limited to the rhetorical — the president blasts stories as “fake news” in either his tweets or his speeches. No one is really taking seriously Trump’s recent threats about stripping away NBC News’ broadcasting license.
Bevin, like Trump, regularly uses the phrase “fake news” in tweets and rarely does formal press conferences. But the campaign against the press in Kentucky is much more serious and sustained. For some reporters, Bevin’s communications team won’t answer basic questions, even on policy issues. Insider Louisville’s Joe Sonka, a veteran political reporter in Kentucky, said that his phone calls and emails to Bevin’s office have gone unreturned since December. (Sonka says he used to keep count, but stopped being so precise as the unreturned messages topped 70.)
Reporters here told me that the Bevin administration will give documents to some reporters but not others and often won’t confirm that the governor will be attending certain public events. In one instance, Bevin and his team initially tried to keep reporters out of an event in Louisville earlier this year that was held at a public school and attended by hundreds of people.
Going beyond Trump’s attacks on the New York Times as “failing,” Bevin has publicly said that people who subscribe to the Courier-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, are “wasting [their] money.” And amid his push to reform Kentucky’s pension system, Bevin wrote on Twitter, “The members of the media who are lying to you now, don’t care if your pension system fails. They are not affected and they are … hoping for the chance to view the wreckage.”
“Our news reporters, TV, radio, newsprint, etc. — with some exceptions — want to undermine Kentucky, want to belittle, want to mock, want to undermine this administration,” the governor said in a recent radio interview. (Bevin regularly does radio interviews with a few hosts in the state who largely let him speak without challenging statements that he makes.)
“That seems to be their sole focus,” he added.
“This is right out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Jason Gainous, a University of Louisville political science professor who specializes in the role of digital media in politics. “Any of your detractors, you discredit them.7
“While Trump bashes the mainstream media, he still engages it. Bevin has cut out media that won’t cover him positively,” Gainous continued.
The most notable aspect of Bevin’s press strategy is his attacks on specific stories and reporters he does not like. Unlike Trump’s more scattershot approach, Bevin’s criticism of the media is often precise, detailed and personal.
There was a 12-minute Facebook video in June in which Bevin, in a suit and tie in what appears to be the governor’s office, blasted media coverage of one of his policy ideas, complete with links to the TV segments that he objected to. The next month, in a dispute with Bill Lamb, the general manager of the Louisville TV station WDRB, Bevin recorded a video exclusively devoted to attacking Lamb. Bevin repeatedly accused Lamb of lying, at one point taking out a dictionary to read the formal definition of the word “lie.”8
“He can’t take criticism at all, of any kind,” said Lamb, who wrote recently that his 2015 vote for Bevin was “a mistake, a mistake that won’t be repeated.” (Lamb describes himself as a conservative and said that he voted for Trump as well.)
Over the last year (it’s not clear exactly when), Bevin and his family moved to a new home. (Kentucky has a governor’s mansion, and many past governors have lived there. But it’s not surprising that Bevin’s family has opted not to live there full-time, since Kentucky officials say that the mansion has never before accommodated a family of 11.)
Bevin did not disclose the purchase of the home publicly and would not at first confirm to Kentucky reporters if he had moved or where he actually lived. So Courier-Journal reporter Tom Loftus went to the suburban Louisville home to confirm that Bevin lived there. According to the account Loftus published in the Courier-Journal, a member of the state police unit that provides security to the governor told him that the house was private property and would not say who lived there.
The presence of the governor’s security team effectively confirmed that Bevin lived there. But the governor took to Twitter to dub Loftus “Peeping Tom” and a “sick man.” Bevin has continued to attack Loftus, who is in Kentucky’s Hall of Fame for journalists, writing on Twitter, “We have 9 children ages 7-18 and yet @TomLoftus_CJ aka #PeepingTom just came to my home again.”
Bevin’s battle with the Kentucky press is in some ways surprising because it appears unnecessary. Republicans have virtually total control of the government here, and the Kentucky press is hardly CNN or the New York Times in terms of setting the state’s political agenda. And that press corps is shrinking. The Courier-Journal has two reporters covering state government in Frankfort, compared to four in the recent past.
“There are fewer than half as many reporters paying close attention to Frankfort as there were 10 years ago,” said Al Cross, the former chief political writer at the Courier-Journal.
It’s not clear whether Bevin and his team simply don’t like criticism, view attacking the press as a way to build a bond with GOP voters in the state who consider the media too liberal, or whether Bevin and his team truly view Kentucky’s media as an important enough force that they must relentlessly attack it.
(I met Bevin during his 2014 Senate run and interviewed him during his gubernatorial campaign, when I was a reporter at NBC News. His chief of staff, Blake Brickman, told me that the governor’s office would not be talking to me for this story. He did not give a reason why.)
It’s hard to say whether Bevin is winning this battle against Kentucky’s press and other institutions, in part because this kind of conflict is hard to measure. But Bevin is not accumulating obvious defeats the way Trump has. A Politico investigation of Trump Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private planes, on the taxpayer dime, essentially forced his resignation. The president fired an FBI director (James Comey) investigating potential improper coordination between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian officials and ended up with a former FBI director (special counsel Robert Mueller) investigating him instead, with perhaps even more authority. News accounts questioning Trump’s rationale for firing Comey appeared to push Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller, showing the impact both the press and unelected bureaucratic figures like Rosenstein are having in Trump’s Washington.
“The negative national media coverage of Trump has had more teeth than any of the media here,” said Gainous. “The media here haven’t landed any major blows. He (Bevin) is not fighting as much resistance.”
“The Koch Brothers don’t have any event that he doesn’t attend”
There is little evidence that Bevin and Trump are close or that the two men have consulted with one another to arrive at their similar styles. During the 2016 presidential primary, Bevin not only didn’t endorse Trump, but at times praised his rivals, Ben Carson and Rand Paul, while not formally backing them either. He publicly plays up his friendship with Vice President Mike Pence, who was the governor of neighboring Indiana during Bevin’s first year in office.
Some in Kentucky believe Bevin will eventually look to emulate Trump in another way: getting elected president. Last year, in his second month as governor, in the midst of a snowstorm in Kentucky, Bevin spoke at a Republican Party dinner in his home state of New Hampshire, the state that also happens to vote second in the presidential nomination process. He seems to be trying to cultivate influential national conservative leaders, speaking to the conservative Weekly Standard when the magazine wrote a feature on him earlier this year. (“The Koch brothers don’t have any event that he doesn’t attend,” said Gerth.)
But even if Bevin does not go national, his strategies and style could. There were worries early in Trump’s term that he would create something akin to an autocracy in the United States. At this moment, those seem overstated. Trump is struggling to enact his agenda and remains deeply unpopular. But Bevin, who is up for reelection in 2019, could eventually have a state legislature dominated by his own party; courts, boards and universities packed with his allies; a business community beholden to him; and an even more diminished press corps, both shrunken by the bad economics of the local news industry and discredited by Bevin spending years attacking it.
Attorney General Beshear, who has repeatedly challenged Bevin through the lawsuits, could be gone too. He barely won his race in 2015. Bevin is likely to run up a large margin of victory in 2019 that would tilt down-ballot races toward Republicans. And whoever Beshear runs against will cast him as the governor’s chief antagonist.
Bevin could have nearly total power here, with few guardrails and little accountability.
And Bevin is not in some unique political position. Including Kentucky, there are 32 states in America where the state government is completely controlled by one party, 26 of which are GOP-dominated states.
Local media outlets are struggling everywhere. Forces of partisanship and tribalism are reinforcing this single-party rule in many states, making it very difficult for the non-dominant party to win statewide contests or even have enough seats in the legislature so that they must be consulted or considered as bills are passed.
So there are lots of opportunities across the country for governors to try Bevin’s combination of breaking norms, attacking institutions, and totally sidelining the opposition party. In most states, the resistance from courts, the press and other institutions will be more like what Bevin faces in Kentucky than the powerful establishment challenging Trump in Washington. And Trump might have overcome those challenges himself if he were more focused and disciplined.
“The major danger of Bevin, in my opinion, is that he is just like Trump in that he has no affection whatsoever for the structures and norms of government,” said Kahne. “I still see most GOP candidates running as ‘politicians’ — Ed Gillespie, Kim Guadagno, most of the House candidates that have won special elections.9
“But we’ve seen a few, especially in deeper red states, that have taken up the mantle of running against the political system as a whole, like [Alabama U.S. Senate candidate] Roy Moore. If that’s a winning strategy, it could destabilize our entire governmental system.
I’d say that’s bad, but there are plenty of people on the left and right who would not,” Kahne added.
There’s a pretty good chance that Trump is the American president in 2021 and consolidating power like Bevin has in Kentucky. But I think there is an even better chance that Trump-style politics endures in America, and potentially returns to the Oval Office with a better practitioner.