Frankfort, Ky. — The president just put out a tweet for me,” says Governor Matt Bevin as he climbs aboard the Super King Air 200 that serves as Kentucky’s twin-turboprop version of Air Force One. It’s May 21 — primary day in the Bluegrass State — and President Trump has taken to Twitter: “To the great people of Kentucky, please go out and vote for Matt Bevin today. Very important. He has done a fantastic job for you and America!” Bevin appreciates the words: “That was very nice of him. He’s such a good guy.”
Moments later, we’re lifting off from the airport in Frankfort and flying above the dome of the state capitol, on our way to Bevin’s lunchtime speech at an economic-development conference in Somerset, some 80 miles to the south. If Bevin is nervous about the primary, he doesn’t show it, even though the polling firm Morning Consult has dubbed him “the country’s least popular governor,” with an approval rating of just 33 percent. That evening, when Bevin is back at the governor’s mansion and the day’s returns come in, he’ll learn that Republicans have renominated him as their candidate. Yet they’ll give him only 51 percent of their support, splitting the rest of their votes among three challengers. Bevin actually lost in about 30 counties, mostly in the southeastern part of the state. A headline in The Hill summed it up this way: “Trump-backed Kentucky governor narrowly survives primary.”
Now Democrats are dreaming of a big upset in a deep-red state. If they can beat Bevin in November, they’ll create a sense of momentum on the eve of the 2020 election. Kentucky is one of three states to elect a governor in the odd-numbered year before a presidential contest (the others are Louisiana and Mississippi). This quirk of the political calendar means that Kentucky stands to receive an outsized share of attention this summer and fall as reporters and pundits watch Bevin’s race, pick apart what happens, and search for signs of what’s to come. In a profession prone to gasbaggery, they’ll gather a scarce resource: new data. On the night of November 5 and in the days that follow, they’ll use it to opine on what the fate of Bevin reveals about the reelection prospects of Trump.
The political class may be especially disposed to overinterpret Kentucky’s results in 2019, because four years ago it arguably underinterpreted them: Few saw Bevin’s come-from-behind performance in 2015 as foreshadowing the surprise of Trump in 2016. “It’s easy in hindsight to make these connections,” says the governor on the short flight to Somerset. He ticks off the similarities: Like Trump, he has a background in business. He was running for what would become his first political office. Much of his party’s establishment opposed him. Trump’s campaign, he says, “was a scaled-up version of what I had done in 2015.”
Whatever Bevin’s story teaches about Trump, however, it may say even more about the future of conservatism at a time when the word’s very meaning is up for grabs. His governorship has tested the viability of an agenda of labor-market and entitlement reforms, and his victory or defeat later this year will help answer the question of whether a tea-party upstart can shift from populist protester to accomplished government executive.