PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Under normal circumstances, the Kentucky governor’s race would be all but over except for the concession phone call. The incumbent running for re-election this year is a conservative Republican in a state that has recently become as red as hot coal, where unemployment is as low as it has been in nearly two decades and most of the voters are still crazy about the governor’s ally, President Trump.
“This is not a normal governor’s race,” said Paul Patton, a former Democratic governor, sitting in his memento-filled office at the University of Pikeville. “We’ve got an abnormal governor.”
There are reasons that Matt Bevin, a millionaire businessman who stomped into Kentucky politics from the right, is by some polls the least popular governor in the United States. His proposed cuts to government services have been steep and his plans to tackle the state’s long underfunded pension program have been seen by many as a betrayal. But the main issue with Mr. Bevin, acknowledged even by his supporters, is not what he has done but how he has done it.
He has tangled with journalists, union representatives and Democrats, but he has been startlingly harsh on less typical targets — like public school teachers. After thousands of educators walked out last year in protest of budget cuts and proposed changes to teacher pensions, Mr. Bevin accused some who picketed a state senator’s business of having a “thug mentality” and called others “selfish” and “ignorant.”
He blamed those involved in the walkouts for hypothetical poisonings and sexual assaults as well as a very real shooting. Voters in focus groups recalled these insults nearly verbatim, one Republican official said. Directed at public servants with whom practically everyone has had personal relationships, the affront posed a political problem.
Backers of Mr. Bevin say that he is simply taking on long-neglected problems, the boggy legacy of nearly a century of Democratic governance, and that a little roughness is tolerable, even necessary at times. The fact that he has so few friends in the State Capitol, they suggest, is a sign he is doing something right.
“We don’t have a swamp here, but we’ve had one government for 100 years now basically,” said Tom Watson, the mayor of Owensboro, in western Kentucky. “We’re left with some things you’ve got to try and clean up a bit, and that makes people upset.”