Washington’s political earthquake will tilt Ky. election landscape

Published 10:17 am Thursday, October 10, 2019

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By Al Cross
Guest columnist

A political earthquake is shaking Washington. How will it tilt Kentucky’s political landscape?

The quick and easy answer – and for now, probably the right one – is that the impending impeachment of President Trump will rally his Kentucky supporters and help re-elect unpopular Gov. Matt Bevin.

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As soon as the Democrat-controlled U.S. House announced its impeachment inquiry, the Kentucky Republican Party tried to draw out Democratic nominee Andy Beshear, saying he should “stop hiding” and say whether Trump should be impeached.

The attorney general wisely wouldn’t go there. He told The Associated Press, “As Kentucky’s top prosecutor, I make my decisions based on facts and evidence. And all I have right now are news stories.”

Actually, no. We have a whistleblower’s complaint about, and a curiously incomplete transcript of, the phone call in which Trump and Ukraine’s president talked about military aid Trump had held up – and in which Trump repeatedly asked for an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and the Biden son who was in a Ukranian firm.

Beshear added that the impeachment process should be non-partisan and “focused on getting to the truth and evidence, and not scoring political points.” But political points will be at a premium in Kentucky until Nov. 5, when voters will decide whether they want four more years of Bevin or a return to Beshear government, in the mold of the attorney general’s father, Steve Beshear, governor in 2007-2015.

Kentucky is one of Trump’s best states, with a clear majority approving his work. Bevin, whose ratings are pretty much the reverse, has hitched his wagon to the president and his core issue, immigration. That isn’t a big issue in Kentucky, as Bevin acknowledges, but he must see that a lot of people who think it is aren’t for him; the same goes for opponents of abortion, the other issue his advertising stresses.

A lot of Republicans aren’t for Bevin because they dislike him personally, largely because of his disparagement of teachers. So, he and his allies want to focus attention on national issues, and associate Beshear with national Democrats who are going after Trump. This strategy may also make pro-Trump, anti-Bevin voters in both parties see the governor as a Kentucky version of the president, “a political outsider” who “ruffled feathers,” as Bevin’s ads put it.

But if Trump keeps going unhinged, as he did in a press conference Wednesday, showing he doesn’t have the temperament a president needs, this strategy will only go so far. At some point, the crazier Trump acts, the less he will help Bevin.

That may not happen before Nov. 5, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be on Kentucky’s ballot a year later, knows that point is out there somewhere.

McConnell also knows that despite GOP senators’ public support of the president, they’re sick and tired of sacrificing their political independence for fear that Trump might turn his base against any Republican who strays.

They also know that the Trump onion is not fully peeled, and it could get pretty pungent, if not putrid. They also know that there are known unknowns – things they know they don’t know – and unknown unknowns, things they don’t even know that they don’t know. (Hat tip to Donald Rumsfeld.)

At some other point, after some of those unknowns are known, some Republicans may see Trump becoming a political liability, not an asset.

This is not a prediction, just a possibility. And McConnell, who is already running a full-scale re-election campaign for next year, is usually prepared for any possibility. That’s probably why you haven’t seen him running point on the defense of Trump.

McConnell said he had seen the “summary” of Trump’s call, and it was “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.” But he allowed the Senate to take up, and pass, a Democratic resolution urging the White House to let Congress see the whistleblower’s complaint, and announced that he had pressed the Trump administration for months to release the military aid that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine.

McConnell has tied himself closely to Trump for much the same reason Bevin has: his own unpopularity. Impeachment raises the stakes for him; he would be the main manager of any Senate trial of impeachment charges from the House, though Chief Justice John Roberts would preside.

Many Kentuckians may not think Trump’s Ukraine gambit is an impeachable offense, because they’re accustomed to public officials treating their offices as private possessions, and they like Trump’s outsider approach. But there is a lot more to dislike about the president, and voters will be reminded of that more and more. That poses risks for Matt Bevin now and Mitch McConnell later. In the Trump era, just about anything can happen.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.