(CN) – For insight into just how vitriolic this year’s gubernatorial race in Kentucky is, you needn’t look further than the final debate between Republican incumbent Matt Bevin and Democratic challenger Andy Beshear.
As the debate held last week at Northern Kentucky University wrapped up, the candidates were asked to find something they admired about each other. While they tried admirably, they somehow managed to sneak insults into their compliments.
Bevin commended Beshear’s “courage” to run for office, but noted he had a “lot of help” when he ran for his current position as the state’s attorney general.
Beshear lauded the governor’s work with Kentucky’s foster care system, but added that “real results” wouldn’t be seen until a new administration took over.
The animosity between Bevin and Beshear has been simmering long before the May 2019 primaries that pitted the two against each other in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.
Beshear was elected as the state’s AG in 2016, and is the son of former Governor Steve Beshear, Bevin’s predecessor.
The younger Beshear, who worked at the Stites and Harbison law firm before being elected AG, has sued the governor on numerous occasions, most recently for Bevin’s investigations into teacher “sickouts.”
The governor sent subpoenas to school districts and requested the personal information of teachers who may have been involved with the planned absences meant as a form of protest against Bevin’s retirement benefit cuts.
Beshear called the subpoenas “direct intimidation” and part of an effort to bully teachers from speaking out against the governor’s pension reform program.
Education has been a pivotal issue for both candidates, with Bevin claiming he has balanced Kentucky’s pension system and put the state on the road to success following the passage of charter school legislation in 2017.
Beshear, whose running mate Jacqueline Coleman is an assistant high school principal, has made education his “highest priority,” and says the rising cost of tuition for higher education is holding back families in the Bluegrass State.
The Republican governor’s allegiance to President Donald Trump has only amplified the divide between the candidates and their supporters.
Bevin took office a year prior to Trump’s election in 2016 and the two have been intertwined ever since, and even more so recently following Trump’s endorsement of the incumbent.
Bevin has consistently displayed a penchant for bold, hyperbolic statements that would look at home on Trump’s Twitter feed.
Last year, the governor “guaranteed” Kentucky’s schoolchildren were exposed to sexual assault and “ingested poison” because they were forced to stay home when public school teachers rallied in Frankfort to protest the state budget.
In January, Bevin complained the state was “getting soft” when it canceled classes because of subfreezing temperatures amid concerns about children waiting for buses in the cold.
More recently, in a debate with Beshear, the governor denied making the claim that “every night, somewhere in America, someone takes their life in a casino,” even though the comment was recorded during a radio interview from July.
Bevin has never shied away from his support of Trump, who won Kentucky by nearly 30 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
The governor’s race is listed as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, while Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball gives a slight advantage to Bevin.
Reelection for Bevin would cement Kentucky’s “trifecta” status – meaning Republicans would control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office – until the 2020 election cycle.
Tuesday’s elections in Kentucky feature a full slate of contests, with the positions of attorney general, secretary of state, agricultural commissioner, auditor and treasurer all up for grabs.
Beshear will vacate the AG’s office following his campaign for governor, with Gregory Stumbo hoping to replace him and maintain Democrats’ iron grip on the position, which the party has held since 1952. Stumbo previously served in the position from 2004 to 2008.
Republican Daniel Cameron, former legal counsel to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has also been endorsed by Trump and touted those connections during a televised debate on Oct. 14.
“I worked for two large law firms in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Cameron said. “I have been a federal law clerk, I was general counsel to the majority leader of the United States Senate. I don’t think anybody questions my ability to lead effectively.”
Apparently Stumbo does, because the former AG filed a lawsuit in September that alleged Cameron lacks the legally required years of experience to fill the position.
The suit was dismissed in early October, after a judge ruled Cameron’s work as a law clerk and as counsel for McConnell qualified as “services rendered involving legal knowledge or legal advice.”
If elected to the position, Cameron would be just the second African-American in Kentucky’s history to win a statewide election, following in the footsteps of current Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton, who will not seek a second term with Bevin this year.
Kentuckians will also elect a justice to the state supreme court, following the retirement of Justice Bill Cunningham in January.
The race is between Christopher Nickell, a judge on the Kentucky Appeals Court, and Whitney Westerfield, a Republican member of the Kentucky State Senate who ran and lost against Andy Beshear in the 2015 election for attorney general.