FRANKFORT, Ky. – Former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin added an element of drama to the governor's race Friday, teasing a bid for the Republican nomination before leaving the state Capitol without jumping into the state's top political race as the filing period expired for the May primary.
Instead the former governor, who was ousted four years ago by Democrat Andy Beshear, held court at length in the Capitol Rotunda about the state's challenges and offered advice to GOP candidates on how they should conduct their campaigns.
Bevin then promptly left the statehouse and ceded the contest to the other Republicans.
The pugnacious former governor would have been a wild card in the campaign, but his absence still leaves a crowded field in what's shaping up as a free-for-all among Republicans vying for the chance to unseat Beshear, who is seeking a second term.
Beshear has maintained high approval ratings while leading Kentucky through a series of tragedies — the COVID-19 pandemic and deadly tornadoes and flooding. But he faces a tough task to build a winning coalition in a mostly rural state tilted in favor of Republicans. That’s one reason the race will be closely watched nationally, coming the year before the next presidential election.
For one day, Bevin — who was heavily criticized for a slew of controversial pardons at the end of his term — was again at the center of attention in Kentucky politics. But how it turned out was jaw-dropping, even for someone as unconventional as Bevin — who feuded with teachers, the media and sometimes members of his own party during his tumultuous single term.
With speculation swirling about whether he would run again, Bevin invited reporters to meet him in the ornate Capitol Rotunda about an hour before the filing deadline. It had all the trappings of a major political announcement, with a large contingent of media and political insiders assembled.
Bevin walked in alone and gave a policy speech lasting more than 20 minutes. He railed against the shortcomings of the state's child welfare and juvenile justice systems, called for an accelerated elimination of the state personal income tax and the need for more opportunities in inner cities.
He then urged the GOP gubernatorial candidates to avoid a bitter primary.
“Let’s not tear each other up and bring each other down,” he said. "Yeah, everybody wants to be the nominee. But at what cost? And I say this even as it relates to our current governor. He’s not the enemy. He’s not the boogeyman. His party isn’t the boogeyman. For Republicans that are listening to this ... we’re all Kentuckians. Let’s celebrate that fact.”
He declined to join a primary field that includes state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, former United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft, state Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck.
Bevin narrowly lost to Beshear in 2019. During his rocky term, Bevin teamed with GOP lawmakers to put Kentucky on a conservative policy course that Republicans say has spurred the state's economic gains ever since, but his combative style paved the way for Beshear’s election.
Bevin kept a low public profile since leaving office, but speculation of a comeback attempt had swirled for months. On Friday, he teased on Twitter that he would be in the statehouse for an address before "proceeding down the hall,” presumably to the Secretary of State's office to file for another gubernatorial run.
Instead, he said he looked forward to watching the campaign unfold, saying he wants to see Kentucky “become the greatest version of itself that it could possibly be.” He ended by saying he would be headed down the hallway, but it turned out to be toward an exit from the Capitol.
Bevin would have carried loads of political baggage into the race. He waged a running feud with public school teachers, sparked by his efforts to revamp the state’s public pension systems. And his actions in the final days of his tenure became a lasting part of his legacy.
Bevin issued hundreds of pardons between his electoral defeat and his final day in office in late 2019. One man pardoned by Bevin for a 2014 drug robbery killing was sentenced last year to return to prison to serve a 42-year federal sentence for the same crime. Another pardon went to a man who was serving a sentence for sexually assaulting a minor. The man was also later prosecuted by federal officials for producing child pornography.
Bevin mounted a 2014 primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the main architect of the GOP’s rise to power in Kentucky. Bevin was soundly defeated but then launched an underdog campaign for governor the following year. Bevin won the GOP primary by a mere 83 votes and went on to win the general election.
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.