Trump Impeachment May Be on the Ballot in Ky. Governor's Race
The rules are simple: The House levels the charges, the Senate turns into a courtroom, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial. There is no role, per the Constitution, for state governors in the process of impeaching presidents.
All the same, Matt Bevin is trying to enter, stage right.
The Republican governor has pressed the pending impeachment of President Trump into his own Kentucky reelection effort. Standing outside the governor’s mansion on Friday, Bevin tied his fate to Trump’s by condemning impeachment as “an absolute travesty” and calling on his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, to answer a “fundamental question”:
Will Beshear support or oppose forcing the president from office?
The Democrat doesn’t want to answer, and the ensuing drama in a 2019 race could draw a rough sketch of the electoral implications of impeachment in 2020.
Democrats were quick to scoff at Bevin for attempting to insert a national issue into a statewide contest, writing him off as a bad actor desperate to move the spotlight from his own record and onto a faraway political kerfuffle. They called his driveway remarks the “meltdown at the mansion.”
“Matt Bevin’s press conference this afternoon was unhinged and bizarre. It is clear that with a disastrous record of trying to strip away health care and bullying teachers, his campaign is flailing, and his approach is to lash out,” Beshear Campaign Manager Eric Hyers wrote in a statement.
As far as impeachment is concerned, Beshear’s stance remained neutral: “He believes that if Congress moves forward, any proceedings should be nonpartisan and focus on facts and evidence.”
It is a prudent non-answer, but a non-answer all the same. Expect the Bevin campaign to bird-dog Beshear on the issue between now and Election Day next month. And no, aides insist, he is not being cute.
“Governor Bevin is not the one making impeachment an issue. Impeachment already is a big issue in Kentucky because congressional liberals are trying to invalidate the 2016 election, which saw President Trump win Kentucky by 30 points,” Michael Antonopoulos, a senior adviser to the campaign, told RealClearPolitics. “The real question is whether Andy Beshear agrees with 95% of House Democrats that President Trump should be removed from office.”
While the next governor will have no say-so in impeachment, a process that is likely to drag into next year, the Bevin campaign said the question clarifies differences between the candidates. Either Beshear is with Trump and the 118 of 120 Kentucky counties that voted for him, they argue, or Beshear is with former President Barack Obama, who lost the state twice and who went to war with the coal industry.
Persecution pays premiums in politics, and it helped Bevin become just the third Republican to win the Kentucky governor’s mansion since World War II. Martyrdom by proxy may now pay dividends in his reelection. The Trump campaign has already used impeachment to rally the president’s base and, in the process, turned an existential threat into a fundraising bonanza. Just 36 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry, the campaign cashed $13 million in checks.
Bevin similarly could use an enthusiasm boost. According to the most recent polling in June, he leads Beshear by just six points, 48% to 42%. A full 10% of voters still hadn’t made up their minds. Even worse for the incumbent, a Morning Consult analysis ranks him as the least popular governor in the country.
Scott Lasley cautions against reading too much into job approval ratings. He chairs the politics department at Western Kentucky University and noted that if popularity determined elections, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be out of a job. Like Bevin, McConnell has an approval rating in the proverbial basement. He is, however, expected to win a seventh term next year.
The Bevin-McConnell comparison is not one-to-one, of course. But the majority leader has made himself the indispensable man of the Trump era by using his post in the Senate to largely remake the judiciary in the image of this president. McConnell has a situational standing, thanks to Trump, something Bevin desperately wants to achieve.
Even though state Sen. Ralph Alvarado is on the ticket with Bevin, Lasley told RCP that “there is no doubt Donald Trump is his running mate.” And so, the bluegrass populist has started banging tribal drums.
“This largely is turning into a cultural battle,” Lasley explained. “If they are going to go after Donald Trump,” Bevin seems to be asking voters, “who is going to stand up for you guys?’” And while governors have no vote on impeachment, taking up the fight is more than performative. “Like a lot of arguments in politics, they don’t make technical sense, but the appeal is still there emotionally,” added Lasley.
Kentucky Republicans have set out to make the race into a national referendum on the president. Here, Bevin seems well suited. As an outsider with an anti-establishment bent, he won with smash-mouth populist politics that Trump would later use to win the White House. He governs the same way, with mean tweets and hard-nosed conservative reforms such as stripping Medicaid benefits for those who are able-bodied but without a job.
Though Bevin has personality, he lacks celebrity. What would slide off a Teflon president has stuck to a contentious governor. He feuds with teachers. He used a state plane to fly out of state. He reorganized public worker pension funds. All of this adds up to a conservative but colorfully controversial record. Hence, the effort to expand the scope of the state race.
“He recognizes that on his own he is in a little trouble, and this [strategy] deflects the issue onto something else, like Trump,” former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton told RCP. “It is smart politics.”
“When I ran for governor 24 years ago in 1995, Democrats had been in office for 20 years. It was time for change,” the two-term governor admitted before thanking a Republican for helping him win his office. “But we just nationalized the election. We ran against Newt Gingrich. We ended up winning a race that practically no one thought we could.”
Bevin, not Beshear, has a ready-made foil. In Kentucky, Trump is wildly popular, meaning impeachment could be a meal ticket if voters see a beleaguered governor as a proxy for a beleaguered president.
State Rep. Terri Branham Clark bristles at that calculation, dismissing it as “a bait-and-switch.” The Democrat who represents the 100th District in the northeastern part of the state told RCP that Kentuckians “are sometimes viewed as being uninformed or uneducated.” From the outside looking in, the impeachment tactic might seem like a winner. But the electorate “is a very discerning group. You can’t really pull the wool over our eyes like that.”
Kentucky is more concerned with issues like education than impeachment, and Clark said the state has “a strong instinct for, well, I was going to use a word that wouldn’t be appropriate for print.”
“Voters in my district can compartmentalize state versus national issues,” she noted. “While impeachment is a topic, it is not an issue that correlates with the governor’s race. Voters are staying focused on the issues locally that affect their daily lives. This is what they will go to the polls to vote about.”
But impeachment will be on the brain no matter what, said Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson, and could easily be put on the ballot. “It is a really big deal, and most people are interested. It is 24/7 news and every channel has their spin on it,” Watson told RCP. “It would be nice to know if the governor’s opponent was standing with the rest of the Democrats in Congress, or does he think this impeachment process is — what’s the word they use up there? — a witch hunt?”
The mayor of the fourth largest city in Kentucky diagnoses fatigue in his constituents and a frustrated belief that Democrats have gone from issue to issue “trying to disqualify [Trump] from being president because they lost the election.”
Watson knows the law and understands that Bevin can’t save Trump from an early Oval Office exit even if he wanted to. Kentucky voters are interested in Kentucky issues, he said, but he believes it is to Bevin’s credit that he has come down against impeachment.
“He is going to tell you how he feels,” Watson insisted. “When his opponent makes a less than heart-felt statement, I think that will make a difference.”